Jeff, how did it start for you?
My older brother was probably my first influence. While I was still in high school and he away at college, I remember him coming home one year, Christmas break I think, with a stack of photos he took around his campus. His compositions were basic, organized and symmetrical. They made use of repetition and converging lines in space. I found them easy to read and understand and enjoy. He had a rather abstract photo of snow covering vehicles that really got me looking at the way things appear under different circumstances and light, and how something so normal could become so interesting in isolation.
I also looked at National Geographic, my father had years of them collected on a book shelf. I didn't read many articles; wouldn't have understood much of them even if I tried, but I studied the photos. I remember seeing one story on cowboys in Arizona or Montana by William Albert Allard. I liked his name almost as much as I like his photos. What struck me most about his photos was that I could feel them. I understood the mood set by his subjects as well as the colors and tones. He was my first favorite photographer, years before I even owned a camera, and I would scan the table of contents for his name each month hoping he would have a new story.
Prior to art school, I was never a good student. As a kid I had learning disabilities, and my teachers and school administrators didn't know whether to put me in special education or to mainstream me. They tried both and I succeeded in neither environment, yet managed to squeak by and graduate from high school and then fail out of college.
But when I started studying photography, things started to click, you might say, and I experienced my first academic/artistic success in life. I had completed two or three photography classes; I knew the zone system and could expose and develop my film and print my pictures with near perfect tones. My compositions were formal, with clean lines and crisp details, but my subjects were effing boring and they expressed nothing about who I was or the world that I knew. The first image I made that resonated with me on a purely emotional level came while walking around the city one day just looking for things to photograph.
Prior to that day my projects were preconceived, bordering on pretentious and perhaps lacking real substance. I had the impression from art school that if images were not preconceived, they weren't serious, they were snapshots. But, on this day I set off to walk and look and make photographs just for fun. The one image I remember from this day, was of a dirty brick wall, literally black from decades of soot, in an alley not too far from my home. A white rope hung diagonally across my vertical frame tied from one nail to another. It had no functional reason for being there and the wall in between was scratched and scored almost like an etching, but having the feeling of some primitive language.
Once I made the image, I couldn't stop thinking about it and couldn't wait to make a print. It spoke to me on a deeply personal level, but I had no idea what it meant, nor did I really care. All the same, I was reluctant, even scared to show it in class, because I knew my teacher would want me to talk about it, and I had no idea what to say. I was attracted to that spot and saw the composition and the elements within on an intuitive level.
When you went to art school, who were the reigning gods of photography, if there were such figures presented to you? Was color used in school, or was it black and white mostly?
The reigning gods at my school were Sally Mann, Duane Michaels, The Starn Twins, Ralph Gibson, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, Cindy Sherman, Jerry Uelsmann, and Nan Goldin, just to name a few. I know we were introduced to many more. I remember seeing Robert Frank's The Americans in class and hearing about Friedlander and Eggleston, but they were not hugely influential among the students. Everyone seemed to want to emulate the others, who leaned more towards conceptual art, tending to avoid or downplay a documentary approach to image making.
Color photography was taught to upper level students, and by my senior year I was shooting all color. My senior project was all Cibachrome prints, with black and white transparencies layered over top. Sounds odd, but some of them actually held together really well. Ralph Gibson came to the school to critique the work of a handful of seniors; I was one of them, and I remember him walking down the line of my images and scratching his chin. He finally looked up and said, "I'm not sure what to say about these. They must be very personal." In other words,"WTF".
Once you found your way in photography, who were the photographers that really resonated with you personally?
Eggleston, of course, profoundly affected me with his democratic recognition that all things have the power to resonate and express something personal. I recently read a biography of Walker Evans and also his collaboration with James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and developed a newly found appreciation for his work and his ability to capture and see history in the present moment. Also Stephen Shore and Joel Meyerowitz are natural favorites for their compositional mastery. Lee Friedlander is a genius for his humor, timing, and complex compositions. Likewise, Gary Winogrand's street work amazes me in how he can see and capture and organize so many moving pieces at once. Peter Beard's journals are amazing for the layers of information and the use of mixed mediums, including blood! Roger Ballen's haunting pictures of white South Africans appeal to my dark side. And James Nachtwey, Josef Koudelka, and Paolo Pelligrin for the artful coverage and interpretation of the human condition. The list goes on and bleeds currently into many of my contacts at Flickr, who now reign highly among my circle of influences.
After college you tried to do photography professionally?
After college, I went looking for photography jobs, but soon learned that the education I received did nothing to prepare for an actual career in the medium. So, through self-study and practice I developed a crude commercial portfolio and journalistic portfolio and went around to the local Baltimore newspapers getting some freelance work, and to the commercial photographers seeking assistant work. I also shot a lot of high school sports for a yearbook company. I was all over the place then, and barely making a living, but learning a hell of a lot.
Then you moved to New York?
I moved to New York for a year and took some night classes at the International Center for Photography. During the day, I worked as a printer in black and white at a commercial lab in Manhattan. I was also documenting the Hari Krishna's of Brooklyn for my school project, which took up a lot of my free time, mainly early mornings and weekends. Their prayers started around four in the morning and I needed to be at work by eight.
I do remember reading about the Ashcan School of painters and their gritty realistic work. I visited McSorley's bar to pay homage to John French Sloan, and I gravitated towards the real and the dark and dirty in my own photographs. So, that work was certainly influential for me. Although I had known his work years before, I rediscovered Robert Frank at this time and truly began to appreciate the power of his work. Eugene Richards also made a huge impact on me with Exploding into Life, the story about his wife dying of breast cancer. He made me realize how intimate and sensitive photography could be, and how courageous you had to be to make images like that. I also saw a Sebastiao Selgado show, An Uncertain Grace, at the midtown International Center of Photography. He blew me away with his wide angle compositions and his ability to organize such expansive, chaotic spaces so coherently.
In retrospect, I under-appreciated and underutilized New York, but I found living there quite hard. It was expensive and unfriendly, and I was too poor to appreciate the finer elements of the town, and too new to know how to do it cheaply. It took forever to find a job, and to do so, I had to hire a job agency first, which took half of my weekly income for the next six months. I was hungry and bitter about the unnecessary challenges and a bit too eager to find a way out. Toward the end of that year, I was offered a full time job with the Associated Press Agency as an assistant, which probably would have been a great "foot in the door" opportunity to do photography professionally. But by then, I was hungry and tired of the city grind, plus a girl in Baltimore was calling me home. So I turned the job down and went home.
Yes. I'd started to become a bit disillusioned with photography as a career, my successes were few and far between, so when I returned to Baltimore I enrolled in graduate school to get a teaching degree. I received my teaching degree in 1992 and began teaching middle school art in the Baltimore school system. While doing that, I applied for and received a full scholarship from Coca Cola to pursue an MFA in photography at the Maryland Institute College of Art. For four years, I worked on my MFA and taught school full time.
One day in the fall of 1996, I walked into the school office and saw a flier recruiting teachers to go work in Kenya. I applied and got an offer and in August of 1997, right after my thesis show and graduating with my MFA, I moved to Kenya to teach 7th and 8th grade delinquent and under privileged boys from Baltimore in the Kenya bush. The Boys of Baraka is a documentary about the school.
Living in Kenya must've been interesting.
It was a marvelous experience, visually of course, but also watching these boys grow and change into fine students who were learning about responsibility and consequences. I taught all subjects, but I also taught a photography class to a select few of the students. The school built me a darkroom and bought me a lot of film to satisfy my photographic needs.
I spent four years working there, but then in August 2001, I returned to the States and settled in Charlottesville, Virginia, to be near family and reluctantly continued my teaching career. Reluctanty, because I kept feeling that I had failed as photographer, or had given up too soon. And after nearly ten years of teaching school, I kept wondering if I could have made it professionally as a photographer.
Towards the end of my time in Charlottesville, I met my wife and we took volunteer jobs in a southwestern Ethiopian project directing a rural health care facility and orphan's program. During that time, a friend of mine was organizing a charity walk in northern Kenya for orphans of the AIDS pandemic. A writer from National Geographic Adventure heard of his walk, and asked to go along to write the story. With lots of encouragement, I submitted my portfolio to National Geographic and asked to be considered for the assignment. The photo editor called me a few weeks later and offered me the job.
We moved to Ethiopia in July 2004, and almost immediately after getting settled, I flew to Kenya for this assignment. It was another great experience, and I was really proud of the images I made. National Geographic published about fifteen of them in their September 2005 issue, which left me feeling like a door had swung wide open for me, and my career as photographer was going to take off. It didn't. Job offers were nil, in spite of countless letters of interest and portfolios mailed throughout the world. I was disappointed, but after feeling sorry for myself for a while, I made a conscious decision not to pursue photography as job again. I had other skills, and I now had a family to support, and my disappointment was getting in the way of my love for the medium.
It was an amazingly liberating decision. For the last six years I have integrated photography into my daily life, making images just for me. As you know, I now live in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I work for Rosetta Stone, and I manage a team of talented artists, including animators, producers, illustrators, and a photographer. We do all the in-product visuals for all of our language learning programs, so I'm still very much involved with the creative processes in my professional life, which is extremely rewarding. On very rare occasions, I even get to shoot an image or two for the company.
Did being away from the U.S. bring you fresh eyes for the place when you got back?
There's no doubt that those experiences have influenced how I look at America, and what I choose to photograph here. Although life in rural Ethiopia is seemingly hard from a first-world perspective, it's also much simpler and more basic. Advertising does not dominate the landscape and filter into every thought and desire. Most ads are hand painted and unique, not mass produced. The effect of that is that most people aren't competing to simulate what's most popular; most aren't even aware of the current trends circulating the globe. Because of their poverty and the lack of global information, life pretty much stays the same as it has for centuries. Some may look at that and think, "how sad, no progress". But being back in America and bombarded from every direction by signs and noise masquerading as progress, all trying to persuade me to buy a product that will make my life more fulfilling . . . I think perhaps the simplicity of life in rural Ethiopia was more authentic -- closer to what matters most.
I've become sensitive to our cultural excesses and the deliberate misinformation conveyed in advertising and in the media. Our values are off-kilter and I worry about our future as a nation. When I photograph today, I gravitate towards the iconic representations of our societal excesses; the failings of government and personal responsibilities; the decay of our values, and the absurdity of some of our laws that attempt to control almost all public behavior. Many times, I photograph signage with the intent to subvert its intended purpose; trying to skew it towards something more real, or at least illuminate the farce. Some of my work also depicts modernity in decay, and tries to point to the reality before the modern virtual world engulfed us in mass information. In this context, the theories of Jean Baudrillard about simulation and simulacra interest me.
Many of my images are like bookmarks for me, saving a place in time that is rapidly fading from the collective memory, and will hopefully serve as a reminder that the essence of our culture was once more grounded.
Many of my images are like bookmarks for me, saving a place in time that is rapidly fading from the collective memory, and will hopefully serve as a reminder that the essence of our culture was once more grounded.
What other elements have been sources for your creativity?
Photography and photographers have always been the deepest of my influences. I've subscribed to Aperture for years, and always find something there to motivate me. But occasionally I do stumble across other mediums that nourish me in my artistic development. To name a few that stand out in my memory:
In film, I loved Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train and Dead Man; just about everything by the Coen Brothers, and The Three Colors Trilogy (Red, White, and Blue) by Krzysztof Kieślowski.
In music, I've always been a huge Bob Dylan fan, especially his more recent work. I listened to Time Out of Mind incessantly when living in Kenya, while working in the darkroom or editing pictures. I'll sometimes stumble across a song or an entire album that has a rhythm and a tempo that touches a chord in my soul. The last song on Dylan's album, Highlands, was one of those. Also, Rufus Wainwright's Sally Ann was another one. I listened to it so often while editing my photos in Ethiopia that I had to put a slideshow together of the images scored to that song. They just seemed to go together.
I like a lot of music, opera, some country and bluegrass. I love Nick Cave, Tom Waits and more recently I've been enjoying the debauched ramblings of Hank III (Hank Williams III). Actually, I think of his music a lot when working on my Friendly City series. I'm not exactly sure why. His lyrics don't match the place as I know it, nor is my lifestyle akin to his, but the rebellious nature of his work, a blend of punk and country, sits just right with me at this time and place in life.
Cormac McCarthy is one of my favorite authors; I like the rhythm of his writing. It keeps a pace like walking or riding a horse. His characters are dark and struggle with morality and keeping hope alive. His descriptions are hyper-visual, allowing me to experience his places like I would from a photograph. The Road scared me.
Which brings us to another cultural influence, the internet and more specifically, Flickr. What was your path to having a presence there?
When I returned from Ethiopia in 2006, I struggled to find my direction in photography. Everything there was so exotic, and my visual intent was photojournalism. By the time I was stateside, I had already relinquished that goal, and had settled into a new job and place, which didn’t immediately inspire me or call me to photograph it. So, I ended up turning the camera towards my family, making images bordering on surreal, but for me very much reflective of this new time in life.
They were transitional images, longing for the simplicity and unconventionality of Africa, and adapting to the responsibilities and pressures of being a father and working nine-to-five. I made two bodies of work at this time, Bedtime Stories and Coming to Reason, and they developed while sharing work in the social networking environment of JPG Magazine.
I stumbled upon JPG (jpgmag.com) while shopping at Barnes & Noble one day, and I saw it as a great place to share work, receive feedback, and an opportunity to get published. I wasn’t keen on the themes, and never shot specifically to the themes. I only submitted work when I felt I had something suitable. But what I liked most about that environment was the connections I made with photographers around the world whose work I admired. Many of the same contacts I have on Flickr today I met first there at JPG. I remember seeing the work of Simon Kossoff, Pascal Fellonneau, Jim Hart, Michael Ast, Anahita Avalos, and Alexis Gerard, just to name a few.
When JPG closed and re-opened. I closed my account. I was getting a little tired of the incestuous nature of JPG. Everyone’s work was beginning to look alike; and there was a lot of gimmicky photoshopping that didn’t appeal to me. I think I was also getting tired of my own work and felt that I needed to shake things up.
Also at this time, I stopped photographing my family as subjects for my art. I felt like that direction had run its course and that I was beginning to repeat myself. Those images were also so inwardly focused and personal, that I felt the need to look outward and start exploring my environment. I opened a Flickr account around the same time, mainly looking for storage solutions for the images that I deemed important.
While browsing the Flickr groups one day I came across some of the people who I knew and admired from JPG. I started exploring their work again and the work of their contacts, and the groups that they belonged to. I was blown away and humbled by the talent I discovered, and slowly started to build contacts and participate in some groups. It's a great community of artists who are passionate and committed to the development of their work and supporting the growth of others. Sometimes I think that Flickr specifically, and the internet in general are on the cutting edge of a new genre of photography, or at least taking it to a new, more relevant level.
Most of your work is delineated by the town of Harrisonburg, Virginia. Why is that, and how has the town influenced your work?
Harrisonburg is my home, and I've fully assimilated to it. I live in the downtown, and believe I have walked nearly every square inch of that area. I live within five blocks from where I work, so all of my commuting is on foot or by bike. This is where I bought my first house, and the only home my children have ever known.
The town Harrisonburg is in transition, on the cusp, perhaps, of revitalization, transforming from a 'good old boy' town into something more progressive. Five years ago, based solely on my first impressions, the downtown barely had a pulse; closed shops dominated Main Street and only a few restaurants existed. Today, it’s beginning to seem much livelier; new shops and restaurants are popping up covering chipped paint cornices with fresh paints and colors.
But in spite of the recent growth and the presence of two universities in town, it’s a quiet town, although far from dead, and definitely not backward. It's a fairly small town of forty thousand people. Other than public holidays, such as the Fourth of July, it’s rare to see large pedestrian crowds walking around town. But you don’t have to search hard to be reminded of the past, of a more interesting period before Wal-Mart, superstores, and suburban sprawl slowly strangled downtown businesses.
In my work, I identify with subjects that represent the transitional moments where there is evidence that something more vibrant existed. Some of this is because in a very real sense I have gone through my own personal transitions while living here -- beginning a new job, starting and raising a family, resigning myself to the fact that I’m middle aged and that my days of world travel and exploration are likely over. All of those transitions are normal and none are bad, but they do preoccupy me, and some of my work reflexively investigates subjects that are representative of a fading past and the uncomfortable struggle to remain relevant and young.
My photographs of Harrisonburg then are first and foremost a personal expression and not an attempt to document the realities of the place, even though a sense of place can certainly be found in some of my work. But that sense is intentionally subjective and not representative of the whole. Harrisonburg is the palette I use to express the ideas of transition and the struggle to appear vital at the risk of being contrived or superficial. I see advertising as an example of this superficiality, and so I’ll often photograph elements of advertising, and juxtapose it against something that confuses or contradicts the marketing intent.
I choose these subjects to also highlight my belief that all acts of marketing are an attempt to mislead or oversell the virtues of the product. Similarly, my series, The Friendly City named after Harrisonburg's own motto, is an ironic title, not because I think Harrisonburg is unfriendly; it's far from it, but it is, like all cities across America, a mixed bag of good and bad.
I have no desire to slander the city; in fact, I absolutely love living here, and truly think it's one of the finest places I've ever lived. I feel very much at home and love being a resident of a small town with big aspirations. So my goals in my photography and any message therein are aimed at the American culture at large or myself.
I have much to say about the American culture, and my fears of the good parts slipping away between the cracks of political division and devoured by gluttonous, self-serving special interests groups. I could spend my free time traveling to larger cities or other towns trying to diversify my content and build on it thematically, but I see no need to do that. Harrisonburg has everything I want for a subject and a home. Photographing here allows me more time to enjoy my family and job. It’s a choice of the heart and of convenience.
In your answer you used the terms 'juxtapose' and 'irony'. Juxtaposing and irony are ways of seeing a world that's conflicted in some way. How much can we as photographers do in showing the disparities of ideal and real?
It seems like there is a net deficit of authenticity these days. And I would extend the definition of advertising beyond the standard commercial space. Having a brand identity is no longer limited to the companies or corporations that have a real product or an idea to sell.
Anyone can be a brand and your brand identity can be anything about you from the size of your breasts to your behavior to the style of clothing worn, or how you adorn your house or car or body. Maybe this is stretching the definition a bit far, but for me these outward expressions of identity are an act of personal marketing and often as misleading as the advertisements in the commercial marketplace and equally superficial.
I think photographers can do a great deal to highlight or reveal the absurd aspects of culture. We’re constant observers with a desire to poke fun at the emptiness that pervades our culture; we’re satirists with cameras, and therefore our goals are inherently critical but constructive in nature. I see a great societal value in this type of work, and hope it has the power and ability to communicate to the masses. But, do I think it can really provide some catalyst to change? To that end, I’m a skeptic.
Street photography has its own special challenges and hurdles. It's the only art form that calls for the artist to interact with the environment, which sometimes produces frictions. Have you had problems with your street photography.
Only a few, but not with security or police, just paranoid people who think I’m doing something wrong. I’m not even sure what they’re concerned about, and it concerns me that there’s a perception out there that photography is harmful or invasive. I think the image of the paparazzo has left an indelible mark on public opinion that photographers have bad intentions. People seem more concerned about one person with a camera than Big Brother watching them from every traffic signal and street corner.
Just this past weekend, I had three people ask me what I was doing and tell me to stop taking pictures or they were going to call the police. If I’m uncertain about whether the place I’m standing is public or private property, I will comply and just move on. If I’m positive I’m standing in a public place, I feel obligated to explain my legal right to photograph there. If the person is rational, I will also try to alleviate their fears about my motives and explain what it is that interests me in this place.
I’ve even shown the picture on the back of the camera before, which usually puts people at ease and opens the door to a friendlier conversation. On occasions, if I’m feeling particularly belligerent and in the mood to argue (which has been known to happen) I’ll challenge them to call the police and I just keep photographing. I’m not afraid of confrontation, but I certainly don't seek it out and would prefer to photograph without any of it.
I've only been physically threatened once by some guy on a moped. He chased me around town telling me he was going to break my camera and kick my ass. Finally I just stopped walking and stared him down, waiting for him to act on his threat or leave me alone. I didn’t say a word, I just smiled and waited, and after a few minutes of his profane tirade, he just sped away.
In my mind, I think you must carry a small camera with you at all times to capture the moment, because often what I see are moments in time; for instance your picture of the lady with the raised leg near the railroad car; the woman's bosom; chance juxtapositions of a window with a reflected element, etc. How do you go about your artistry? I read something you said about how you made the shot of the woman near the railroad tracks; you were pushing a stroller. I think the photo is a success with it's Winogrand-like canted angle. Or your picture of the cannon juxtaposed with the "voter registration" sign. I'm thinking you must not let too many opportunities pass, but you did say in a comment that you often miss shots because of pushing that stroller.
I always have a camera with me, usually hung around my neck. Currently, I’m shooting with the new Fujifilm X100, which aside from the crappy manual focus, I like it very much. Some years ago I had a larger Canon 5D with fast and heavy lenses. I sure loved the quality of the images, but I hated carrying it around. With it hanging around my neck, I would bend over to pick up my children, and the camera would swing forward banging them in the head. So I got the Fuji.
Because I have a camera with me at all times, I make the majority of my images while going about my daily life. I commute to work either by bike or walking, and will often leave home or work a little early to take a circuitous trip around town. My family is extremely patient with me, and has become accustomed to my falling behind when we’re out for a walk. I don’t drive much, mainly because it’s a hassle to pull over or turn around to get the picture. So when driving I tend to let potential images pass by, which is sometimes painful. If I did stop, I think this would be pushing the tolerance of my family a bit too far, especially when there’s a crying baby strapped to a car seat in the back. When my kids are older I hope that we can take more leisurely road trips without worrying about diversions and time.
On weekends, I’m allowed some alone time, two to three hours on Saturdays, where I can purposely explore Harrisonburg and photograph. I really look forward to this time each week, and strive to never to let anything interfere with it. I do my editing and printing in the evenings after the kids are in bed, which is only about 1 ½ hours each night, but I make the most of it.
Essentially, it's a challenge keeping it all in balance and not dropping the ball on any of my responsibilities. I've made photography a priority in my life, and make it fit into my daily schedule. Life is short and time is precious, and I have to be protective of what little time I have for image making, or I won’t grow as an artist. I need to be single-minded in my pursuits outside of family and work. I don’t have much time for watching sports or learning to play an instrument or expressing my creativity in other mediums. And I’m just not that talented. If I hope to master anything in life, I have to give photography all the time and energy I can spare.
Thank you, Jeff James
More of Jeff James' photography can be seen here.
More of Jeff James' photography can be seen here.