Listen to an audio excerpt from this interview:
Adam Bartos is a complex and reserved observer, a laid-back official from an agency that never was, The Discerning Eyes of the Arts. He shows up as witness to the moment when history is passing, when culture is fading, when time has stopped. Whether in the photos of yard sales; his new images of darkrooms; or his earlier explorations of Los Angeles, the United Nations, and the Russian space program, his eye is drawn to the detail in peril, the moment on the verge of being lost, the object that most defines. He’s shy in the most charming of ways—you never know what he’s thinking but you can be sure that he is thinking. When he speaks you lean forward to listen, and if you can get him to laugh, well, that’s the best. He erupts, breaking into an incredibly winning grin. I met him, years ago, in East Hampton; I would see him at the beach, at picnics and summer parties, and at yard sales, looking at stuff not for what it is but for what it means, what it says about us, what it says about the movement of time, how fast and fleeting and melancholy even the most sublime of moments can be. Like finding a treasure for a dollar or watching your child’s toes dip into the ocean for the first time. Adam truly gets how complex life is, how multi-layered, how global our world is. His images catch the space between things: the stopped time; the jazz shuffle; the downbeat, half-skipped heartbeat that is life as it is lived and as it is passing.
A.M. Homes How do you know when you’ve completed a body of work? For some people it’s done when it’s either shown or published and for others the work just goes on regardless. Are you still photographing the yard sales or Hither Hills park and campground? I love Hither Hills, I’m obsessed with it as a place.
Adam Bartos Yes, it usually stops because I feel I’m repeating myself and the energy is lost. I did go back to Hither Hills a few years ago and wanted very much to pick up and continue. The state police made that impossible. Apparently, I was trespassing, and was instructed to stay away. But, you’re right; it is an extraordinary spot. Even in the winter, when it’s deserted, with the grid of concrete pads and picnic tables going up to the dunes. The light is exceptional, and I think some of it migrated into the yard sale pictures.
AMH How do you stop with the yard sale photographs? Aren’t they addictive?
AB I’m relieved that I don’t have to go to any more yard sales. (laughter) I’ve done it.
AMH Growing up, there was a family, the Pops, who lived across the way. They were the only neighbors who had garage sales, really a carport sale. They used to have completely mysterious things. That Hamilton Beach milkshake maker—the green machine with the silver cup, which I thought was so wild—you could have a soda-fountain milkshake maker in your house. But they also had these books that I can’t believe I never bought, like How to Psychoanalyze Your Neighbors—
AB Come on! (laughter) I never went to yard sales as a kid because I grew up in Manhattan.
AMH How did yard sales become a photographic thing for you?
AB I pay attention to objects, ones that have the aura of a relic, or something forgotten, obsolete or neglected. And I’m drawn to photograph surfaces with some clutter, like desktops. They are like little stage sets for conscious or inadvertent arrangements of material. After all, a yard sale is really just an opportunity for someone to juxtapose and display all kinds of stuff. The phenomena of the sales themselves didn’t really interest me so much. And I thought about that. It took me a while to figure out how to approach it—I started by using a large-format camera and attempting to make tableaux but that camera was unwieldy and limited me to broader views. So I switched to a 35 reflex camera in order to photograph close up and shoulder-to-shoulder with the other hunters. I didn’t begin to take it seriously until I saw these wonderful inkjet prints that I got from those little negatives. Then it was thrilling to continue, knowing what was possible to record.
AMH It’s interesting how, looking at your work—the yard sales, the United Nations, the Russian space program, Los Angeles—they all have a melancholy tinge of things slightly left behind, or the thing looked back on.
AB It’s hard for me to explain what that is. I feel some tenderness about these things—and I suppose that I photograph what I like; I think that includes people as well. John Berger said about Boulevard, my book on Los Angeles and Paris, “Althusser once defined solitude as ‘nobody anywhere is waiting for you.’ All the places in these pictures have turned their backs on us. For them, the photo doesn’t exist.”
AMH Things and places.
AB I want to maintain a disinterested attitude, a consistent distance, which is important because I’m not trying to make a particular or singular statement about what I’m photographing. Even when I photograph people, as in Hither Hills, I see them in relationship to a landscape, maybe in a kind of sculptural relationship to objects as well. But in spite of myself, that feeling of solitude comes through.
AMH It’s a personal vocabulary, the language of your work, the thing that is the you that’s in there, that’s not named or articulated or even necessarily intentional, but it is the thing that repeats itself, which I find mesmerizing. Architecture comes back again and again in your work, elements of buildings or relationships to a piece of a building.
AB My father was an architect. So I was aware of the fact that something is made through a process. As a kid I knew that somebody designed the buildings I saw. And I have also always been interested in vernacular architecture, architecture without architects. The character of surfaces as well, and in particular, how age or newness affects how things look in the present. I like to champion objects and spaces that I think are not fully seen on some level, and that speak to me. The UN project and the Kosmos projects are both worlds that I felt like I could possess in some way. To me, these places felt as if they had been made to be photographed in color and it had not been done. Also, while the UN building and the Russian space program are symbolic spaces, the references we bring to them have changed over time, as they became relics of discarded aspirations. So in that sense, I’m examining the past, or reorganizing it for myself because I find these places beautiful.
AMH How do you think the UN physically has changed since you finished that series in 1994? Do you think that it’s deteriorated even more?
AB Well, I’m sure it’s built up some more layers of patina. It was falling apart already, there was leakage and—who knows?
AMH When it was built, its intention was very forward-thinking in that sort of Jetsons way.
You captured something similar about past and future with the Russian space program as well; there are so many levels of years present in any one image.
AB Well, both are examples of design springing from stated ideals that are forward-looking. But the time period in the Kosmos pictures is tricky and layered, as you say. I think Russians are naturally inclined to be involved with notions of posterity, and, of course, there’s an enormous amount of officially produced propaganda material commemorating Soviet achievements in space—we all know what it looks like. Personally, I found the desk or bureau-top altars that were maintained by my portrait subjects with a picture of Sergei Korolyov (the mastermind and chief designer of the space program) very moving. Being a part of this enterprise was the high point of their working lives and still remains a part of their domestic landscape.
Meanwhile, in Kazakhstan in ’99, I photographed a Russian launch sending astronauts to the International Space Station. The Soyuz booster currently used for this purpose looks identical—to me—as the Soyuz that launched Yuri Gagarin in 1961, and used the same launch pad, number 1. (Confirming the brilliance of the first-generation designers and engineers I just mentioned). The rocket and the erector that it lies on are painted the most surprising colors: orange, yellow, dark green, light blue, brown, and red, with silver highlights. There is something oriental and archaic about these colors that alludes to the cosmic myth that is linked to the actual history of Russian space exploration, and still has a presence.
AMH The German artist Oliver Boberg photographs freeway underpasses, and they look like freeway underpasses, but they are constructions made in his studio. They have that same sense of melancholy, of something lost, that absence of people but presence of memory and history that I see in your work. Your UN and Russian cosmonaut pictures seem drenched in history and time moving. Melancholy is one of the words for those photographs and it’s not necessarily a bad feeling, There’s warmth as well; it’s very layered, rich—heartfelt.
AB Maybe it also plays with time in the sense of looking at the present as you might imagine it when it’s past. Or let’s say that you’re looking at something in present time and seeing what that will look like as past time through the photograph.
AMH But that’s almost the definition of melancholy, that the minute it’s past—
AB Exactly. You can’t enjoy the present because you’re worried about losing it. (laughter)
AMH Because by the time you’re aware of it, it’s already over.
AB That’s a reason to photograph, to keep a distance between . . . having to deal with that. The Hither Hills portraits are implicitly about that late-afternoon summer light by the ocean.
AMH Well, photography’s a particularly good way of managing time. You could look at it as a Buddhist. It’s a meditative moment, a buffer between the moment that the photo’s being taken and the one later as it’s being viewed. There’s always a space, which is contemplative.
AB I like that approach to photographs. I make pictures that need time to be seen or reveal themselves, and also that have some sense of time within them.
AMH Which is funny because it’s a fast medium and yet it’s—
AB Yes, the paradox of the latent image. It takes time for me to see what I’ve done. The expectation that carries over from the moment of exposure makes it impossible to really see the result until plenty of time has passed.
AMH Adam, how’d you become a photographer?
AB Well, I took pictures as a child, and later I was an avid member of the darkroom club at school, so I was very interested and at just the right age to be seduced by the glamour of Blow Up when it came out. Not only Veruschka and Redgrave, but especially the part in the beginning where the David Hemmings character comes out of a flophouse, with his camera hidden in a paper bag, goes around the corner to his Bentley, and tosses the Nikon into his glove compartment. Something about entering into different worlds with a camera—of course I didn’t appreciate the alienation of the character until decades later! I had a summer job with Bert Stern, at his enormous studio in the East 60s, which was as close as I could get to Blow Up, close enough for me to realize that a career in fashion photography wouldn’t suit me. Also, I remember examining The World of Henri Cartier-Bresson when it came out in ’68, and that was a big influence on me. I went to film school but continued to photograph. At the time, my friends and I were shooting and projecting slides. I saw some early color work I really liked by Joel Meyerowitz in an issue of Artforum, and I just looked him up in the phone book. He invited me to come over and showed me a tray of his slides and looked at mine, which was terrific, and inspiring. In the mid-‘70s I was fortunate to get to know Bill Eggleston and Stephen Shore and see what they were doing, as well as my contemporaries in color, Mitch Epstein and Len Jenshel, and, at a certain point, it became too engaging to do something else. And my parents were supportive!
AMH Meeting those photographers, who was most compelling to you?
AB I was juggling lots of influences. In color, Eggleston’s and Shore’s work were the biggest for me, even though they are so different.
AMH Did you feel like you had to be crazy or wild, or carry a gun to be a photographer? Was it sort of an outlaw medium? You could take it with you anywhere.
AB For me, the implicit connection photography has to the road, and its immediacy, is very appealing.
AMH Certainly in the ‘50s and ‘60s, photography was an edgy thing. You weren’t a fashion or a news photographer; what kind of photographer were you?
AB Well, there were always plenty of photographers working outside the categories of commercial photography, making pictures that had no obvious utility, and who probably bored people to death trying to answer your question. Many great ones were amateurs. Now, we can call it “fine art photography” and it’s become an industry too. As Thelonius Monk said, “there’s no boundaries in art,” and photography is a case in point.
AMH So, going back to scale, how has your relationship to scale changed and do you think the change for you has been a natural evolution or an evolution of the world of photography?
AB No, to be honest, I am sort of confused about scale. It’s such an issue for photography as art, which is so different from—
AB Exactly. The size of these LA photos is largish, but not really big. I was thinking of a contemporary translation of the size of a “mammoth” plate, which was 18 × 22 inches—absolutely huge when you consider that these were glass-plate negatives processed in the field by Watkins, Muybridge, Jackson, and others. The prints here are 25 × 35, which seems the right size to be able to read the details in these landscapes and see the entire image in a lavish way. A very big print pushes you farther back and needs a big wall. I think people have forgotten the pleasures to be had from smaller-scale prints and the medium’s ability to record intimate detail—I’m thinking of prints much smaller than this one.
AMH Although early photographs were small, there was that sense of awe, of seeing something truly for the first time.
AB Yes, and there was a great amount of description in the contact prints that were made from those big negatives. The point of view and the intent are to show you something very clearly, at least in the work that I love, much of it done by amateurs, by the way. Anyway, that’s a great reason to take a photograph.
AMH I have to say, I love the scale of this particular image. (We’re sitting in Adam’s studio and there’s an enormous 60 × 84 print on the wall of a front yard in Tijuana from 2008.)
AB Yes, well, to completely contradict myself, it’s huge. Gabe Greenberg, who was making some smaller prints of these Tijuana pictures for me, insisted that I see what one looked like at this size. I’m trying to sort out what I think about it. It’s like having a new window in my studio that looks out on a very different neighborhood.
AMH You can’t hold the whole thing entirely in your eye for very long; you have to go into different places of it. And because of the colors and the shapes, it has a very painterly quality to it. It’s big. So, is that from a negative or from a digital photograph?
AB It’s from a digital file of a film negative.
AMH That’s changed; how much more specifically things can be adjusted or manipulated or made more real than the eye can even handle. I’m thinking about Clifford Ross’s recent photographs and the new lens he made. It has such incredible depth of field that everything is in focus. It’s actually hard on my brain. I don’t know what the neurological processing is, but it becomes difficult to understand. Even some of Gregory Crewdson’s last pictures—there’s a woman sitting in the center with a mirror behind her, and they’re both in equally sharp resolution; that disjunction feels like it’s playing with my head. You can’t write a story in which everybody is in focus. . . well, you could write it, but no one would know how to read it because you’d keep thinking: Who’s in charge? We all are. But that’s true for the moment we’re in photography, the combination of scale and the ability to render intense focus in an enormous size so that it actually overwhelms—
AB It does disable your critical faculties. That is the Gursky technique. It is an experience. I find the presentation problematic, all the plastic.
AMH But it’s also about how we process information, how we process things that we don’t think about when we think about looking at a painting.
AB Speaking about focus, did you see the Morandi show?
AMH I’m the only one in New York who didn’t.
AB I know a few other people. I’ll introduce them to you. (laughter) By the end of it, I felt disoriented in a beautiful way. Going back to the same scale and subject matter over and over in all the variations of tone and paint, and finally arriving at the very small watercolors Morandi made at the end of his life, which are so delicate and empty, just on the very edge of abstraction and spontaneity.
AMH So tell me about what you’ve been doing most recently.
AB I’ve been photographing darkrooms for a while.
AMH That’s very cool. Just all over the place?
AB As I can find them. Clifford’s is in here. (AB shows AMH a journal of images.) I’m still—
AMH What’s amazing about some of these darkrooms is how much like an operating room they look like, or a laboratory. (turning pages) Whose is this? I like this one a lot.
AB This is Chuck Kelton’s, who’s across from Union Square. He’s a top-notch black and white printer and very ordered. This is not an edit; it’s just—
AMH No, it’s really great to see. And also it’s great seeing what other people have on the walls of their darkroom. This one reminds me a little bit of your UN photos because you just don’t see—
AB It’s very much like the UN.
AMH You don’t see that kind of editing and splicing equipment often.
AB Yes, this is actually a moving-film restoration lab so they need to use all of this obsolete equipment.
AMH I love that one, that ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. (pause) These are really beautiful. (These images of darkrooms, in this digital age, feel like something that in a moment may be gone. Darkrooms, enlargers, strips of film—the parts you never usually see.) So how do you know when you’re on to something? (turning pages)—I love this. How heartbreaking.
AB Once in a while I have a new idea; then there are false starts and sometimes it sticks and I continue. The Kosmos project came about after I read a notice in the Times about an auction at Sotheby’s of Russian space material, and I went to see it and was blown away. Last spring I went to Gdansk. I saw one of those iconic shots of the derricks at the shipyard and it got me thinking about the place and its history. Another emblematic place that is functioning now but whose time may have passed. I was very excited about the possibilities, as I imagined them.
AMH And how long were you there for?
AB I went for a week and—
AMH One week?
AB Well, with a young child I can’t be away too long. So, I went for a week and met up in Gdansk with Antek, a young Polish actor who is a friend of a friend, to translate and help me. Everything was terrific, except that every day was as sunny as could be. Not one cloud. It was all wrong for Gdansk.
AMH When that happens do you think, Oh, I’ll go back in the winter?
AB It’s a big commitment. I’m not sure.
AMH The Yard Sale Photographs book is coming out; it includes a story by Raymond Carver—one of my favorite Carver stories. What’s not to love about that story? “Why Don’t You Dance?” And what else is coming soon from Adam Bartos?
AB The darkroom pictures will be published, in a small edition by Stiedl/Dangin. Not very many images but beautifully produced. Meanwhile I’m still looking for some interesting spaces. And I’d like to do some portraits.
AMH Of humans?
AB Definitely. I want to photograph my elementary-school classmates, who would all be male native New Yorkers my age.
AMH Where did you go to elementary school?
AB On the Upper East Side. I’m not really in touch with them, but I know that most of my fellow classmates still live here and hopefully I’d have a certain entry, and a glimmer of something shared with them. I’m not quite sure how I want to do it, but in the end, it will be about New York.
AMH Are you still in touch with Eggleston at all, if one can be in touch with Eggleston?
AB A bit. I send Bill my books and he’ll call and leave some absolutely fantastic message on my voicemail that I’m always sorry I never saved. If I went to Memphis I would visit; he’s always been very warm to me.
AMH The last generation of photographers is now getting old. Robert Frank is obviously very old. It is an amazing group and at a certain point the landscape will shift again when they’re not—
AB I have felt that it’s a shame that I have not tried to spend more time with Bill over the years. Now it’s ridiculous—everybody wants a piece of him. But I was always uncertain of the open-ended quality of such a visit. (laughter)
AMH I don’t know if they were published anywhere, but Bernice Abbot did those photographs of Route 1. She did this enormous road trip. And in that crazy way, I want to see those.
AB Stiedl has done a huge Bernice Abbot book. They’ll be in there; it’s almost a catalogue raisonné. Work in a book really creates its own space because you’re interacting with it physically as an object.
AMH What has always interested me about your work is your eye, how you frame a picture and how you make those decisions. I don’t know if it’s something you can articulate because it’s what you see in that place at that time. There’s something very specific about it and it seems to me that it’s not something you’re creating in the darkroom later by cropping, but it’s literally what you’re seeing as a photographer—
AB Yeah, where you put the camera.
AMH The whole key to photography.
AB (laughter) Very key, yes indeed. Well, it is hard to talk about those processes because it is true that—I mean, there are lots of times where, I confess, I don’t know where to put the camera, or I keep moving it and it doesn’t look right. Because the decisions are endless. Then, it can be like saying a word over and over again until you’ve entirely lost the sense of it. But maybe there is an ideal in my mind that I try to impose and get right. I love working with the view camera because of its precision and slowness. There’s so much pleasure to be had just looking at the projected image on the ground glass and arranging where the edge of the frame will generate some energy. Bill Eggleston said that famous thing, that his model for composition was the Confederate flag. (laughter)
AMH That’s very funny. Or the Jack Daniel’s bottle, whatever it was.
AB Skull and crossbones.
AMH Right, it’s very well honed in your work—where those edges are and why they’re there.
AB Well, in the Yard Sale Photographs, when I look at the pictures closely, which is hard to do when I’m taking them because I’m holding the camera, it’s not on a tripod, and you can’t study it too long, but I love to see what’s there on the very edges of the printed page. And there is an idea that the whole frame should be interesting. You don’t just stick something in the middle—like . . . Eggleston. Ha! (laughter)
A.M. Homes is the author of nine books, most recently the memoir The Mistress’s Daughter and the novel This Book Will Save Your Life. She has collaborated with artists such as Bill Owens, Catherine Opie, Carroll Dunham, Rachel Whiteread, and with Eric Fischl on his forthcoming book Beach Paintings. She also writes frequently on photography.