Volume III - 1995-1996
Thematic Photographs: From Past Lives to Creative Writing
An Interview with Larry Carter
Dr. Larry G. Carter
is Vice President of Academic Affairs at Jersey City State College. His educational
background and training is in learning theory and instructional design, and
he has teaching experience at the high school, community college and university
level. In addition to photography, he is interested in the area of gender
studies as an academic discipline and the changing roles of men in relation
to changes brought about by the women's movement.
Editor's Note: "Past Lives," an exhibition of 21 photographs of old and ancient buildings by Dr. Carter, was held at the Courtney Gallery at Jersey City State College from January 19 to February 10, 1995. The following is about that show, the title of which refers to the persons who--in the photographer's imagination--might have lived and worked in those structures. The interview was conducted on February 8, 1995 at Jersey City State College by Clyde Coreil. "JILL" is The Journal of the Imagination in Language Learning.
JILL: I gave two of my classes the assignment of going to the show, looking at the photographs for at least ten minutes, and writing a reaction paper. Several of those papers reported essentially the same thing. They went in, looked at the photos for about thirty seconds and said to themselves, "What's this all about? Why did the teacher ask me to come here?" But they respected the ten-minute minimum, and looked more closely. When they did that, they started seeing the content and became quite interested and excited. I could tell from the papers that they were very eager to express what they found. I think that's a critical state in writing--the heightened wish to say something.
Carter: Glad to hear it.
JILL: The most intriguing aspects of the show--for me as well as my students--was the theme and the title. At what point did it occur to you to pursue that theme? Before you had taken the first photograph?
Carter: No. I started the photographs--of which I have taken several hundred--about three years ago. I live in Manhattan and spend a lot of time wandering around the City. I go to a lot of gallery openings, and generally, I like to walk. It's not unusual for me to walk seventy blocks to Soho, which has many galleries. During those walks, I would see buildings with the imprints of adjacent buildings which had since been torn down. I found the patterning and the light coming off these walls fascinating. Depending on the time of day, they were very different. One afternoon, I took my camera and began taking pictures of those walls. I suppose it's like many other involvements--once I had started, I got deeper and deeper into it. Now, I can't walk anywhere in the City without looking around and noticing these walls.
That's how this started. I didn't think of the idea of "past lives" until I did the ones in Greece. In the first black-and-white photos, I was interested mainly in what I could do technically with the camera. Then I happened to go to Delos, which is an island off Mykenos, an island that we would call a national park. It is as it was a very long time ago. There are no "developments." The Greek government had the good taste to prohibit anything like that--even forbidding restorations. Nothing has been done to it. They even limit the number of people who can visit for a maximum of four hours. No one can spend the night there. Right after the boat arrived, I noticed that everybody started walking in one direction. And I thought I would go the opposite way because if I wanted to take photographs, I might prefer having no one sitting around on the ruins and watching me. And when I did that, I ended up about halfway around the island, totally alone. Totally. With all of these ruins, which ranged from a wonderful old amphitheatre to the bases of houses. In many of them, the plumbing system was still intact and quite visible--small ditches lined with flat stones.
It was at that point that I thought about the people who lived there. It had become suddenly become real! This was a street, and these were the houses on the street. What about the people who had slept in those houses, walked over this plumbing every day of their lives to go to market, visit friends and whatever? Some of the walls were much more elaborate than others. There were sections of the town where obviously the rich people lived: the houses had very nice marble columns and elaborate designs on the floors. Many of them were on the hills with beautiful views; others were in the valley with a limited view--apparently a poorer section of town. I began thinking of what these spaces meant to these long-departed individuals. I found a few houses that still had plaster on the walls, and noticed that they were the ones with decorated floors. These were, I thought, the homes of the aristocracy, people of means. I thought of a contemporary person redoing his kitchen and the questions he or she might ask the designer and contractor--"What other floors have you done?" "What experience have you had in installing cabinets?" That sort of thing. I realized that it must have been the same with these ancient Greeks. I was, in a sense, in touch with them on a very quotidinal level. When I came back from Greece, and continued doing black-and-whites, I began thinking about past lives in New York. What were the people like who lived in those buildings?
JILL: Did you use your imagination to develop the details of these past lives?
Carter: Yes. In my own mind. Certainly.
JILL: Did you give them names?
Carter: No. I've never gone that far. I would imagine things like what that space meant to people. Working nine to five doesn't leave me with enough time to do this, but it would be very interesting to go to the planning commission and get some of the old street maps and figure out exactly what this and that building were. I made assumptions based on the shapes of these buildings and what's left around them. Many were almost certainly factories. Given when they were built, there were definitely not modern, air-conditioned, and centrally heated. These were really sweat-shops, and even in those neighborhoods, there are still companies that hire a lot of immigrant labor, a lot of low-paying jobs. The buildings that are missing are really no different from the ones that are still there.
JILL: It might be possible to do short stories about those people.
Carter: I have not done that, but I think that these settings would certainly spark the mind of a writer.
JILL: There seems something very dramatic about these photographs. I wonder are you particularly interested in theatrical activities?
Carter: No, not in participating in theatrical productions. People have asked me, "Why did you choose that one?" Possibly, the answer is that I have taken and chosen for the show more dramatic photographs. There are a couple that I selected because of the brick patterning and what happens to the wall after it's been exposed to the elements for so many years. The bricks fall away and you have these interesting and strange patterns. The photograph I used for the poster announcing the show is one in point. I'm interested in knowing what that building was. There were many five-floor walk-ups in the neighborhood, so I would say it was an immigrant population. That and the shape of the building are strong evidence that it was a church, which would have been very important to their spiritual and social life and their whole new life in America. So you see that I do fantasies around particular aspects of buildings. You can carry that one step further, and ask yourself what goes on in a church. People went there probably to pray and pour out all the bad things that happened to them. If I am right, the building represents a very personal part of their lives.
That type of realization led me to include the photographs from Egypt, which one reviewer didn't get. He said that if I were going to do that, why didn't I stick to New York and work with the walls with old billboards that had been painted with advertisements a long time ago. There're two different issues here. The ones from Egypt are wall carvings and wall paintings that are vaguely similar in a way to the advertisements. But they were carved and painted scenes that had to do with their whole religion and belief structure. Those are paintings of the gods anointing the Pharaoh--giving an individual the power to be the high priest. So that's how I was looking at those old temple walls--as evidence of past lives. Drawing a parallel between the probable New York church and the Egyptian temple might be stretching it, but that's what I was doing.
JILL: That kind of stretching seems very much at the center of the imagination. I think that somehow that's what my students were consciously or unconsciously reacting to. Ideas usually beget ideas. Have you thought of similar themes to develop in coming photographs?
Carter: Yes and no. I wanted to work on a set of photographs that would capture the Henry Moore sculptures and their reflections in the pools at Lincoln Center. It was a purely a technical problem. I spent a lot of time trying to get it right. I think I managed to do that, but in every single photograph there is at least one pigeon sitting on top of the piece of sculpture. Which I didn't notice at first when I was concentrating on angles and light. I intended to go back and get the shots without the birds. But then I thought, "No. The pigeons are interesting. Whether or not they annoyed me, they were there. " So I began to look for sculptures around the City with pigeons sitting on them or flying around. I have accumulated a lot of such pictures. That was similar to the photographs of the walls, which started as an attempt to solve a technical problem--how to get on film the shading of the bricks and their sharpness or fuzziness. It was only after I had a pile of pictures of walls and had looked at them carefully and had gone to Greece--it was only then that the idea of past lives began to organize the photos.
JILL: I shoot snapshots occasionally. I always think I have taken a marvellous photo of something or other. And then I get the prints, and they are anything but exceptional. The ideal image I thought I had captured is nowhere to be seen. Have you found that experience has helped you translate the ideal to film?
Carter: I'm only an amateur, but taking a lot of photographs seems to have had some of that effect. Before my second trip to Egypt, I studied the shots I had taken there before. I decided what changes I would make in angle and time of day for shadows, that sort of thing. To make a long story short, when I got the prints back, I found that many of the original batch were better. And, I must admit, a lot of the new ones were also better. Experience had helped.
JILL: The real was closer to the ideal.
Carter: Somewhat. If we begin speaking in those terms, we must factor in the role of chance, accident. Often, when I was working on the photographs in the show, I would get to the site and find that right where I wanted to place my camera, there was a parking lot with a fence and barbed wire strung along the top and ugly signs that said $8 per half hour. A ladder would seem like a solution, but it isn't. The parking lot owner would object and a crowd would gather and ruin concentration. So sometimes, the angles are less than perfect. But that's part of the challenge--to try to do the very best with what you've got.
JILL: With what chance and accident add to determination.
JILL: After I saw your show and thought about its title, "Past Lives," it occurred to me that another assignment to students might have been, "Write a story about a person or persons who might have lived in one of these buildings." Can you think of any other type of classroom activity that might be generated by a viewing of the show?
Carter: Different aspects of the photographs themselves might present an opportunity for students to talk about their own experiences. The three Egyptian walls might lead to considering the place of decoration in public and private buildings, and the relationship of decoration to the individual person living in a particular society at a particular time. The students might also be asked to describe the patterning and elements of design in such photographs. Normally, most of us tend to overlook these things and take them for granted.
Students might also be asked to discuss the construction of the building. My interest in photography has always been architectural. How were the problems of construction solved? Look at the window frames and see what was done with the bricks that enables you to have a window in that wall. That's structural: how do you build a window without having the whole wall collapse? Look at the photos from Greece. How were the stones arranged to give stability to the walls? The covering material has fallen away and you can look at how the smaller stones and the larger stones are placed. It's amazing that they have remained in position for all these centuries. There's no cement or anything of the sort--just careful placement and balancing.
There are two photos in the show that are of houses built of mud bricks, which are still being used in construction in Egypt. The bottom part of the bricks is about two thousand years old. They lasted because they were covered with sand. The top part was reconstructed at some point in the past forty or fifty years. So that we are looking at a long and valuable tradition of architecture and construction that really worked. The housing is adequate and substantial. We tend to glance at it and say that that's sort of inferior, but it's not. The house that is beside the one in the photograph is even now very much and very comfortably lived in. On the day I was there, there was laundry hanging from a line out the window right next to this wonderful old temple. Every morning, the residents get up and see this beautifully preserved structure. So, in answer to your question, there are lots of things in these photographs that students can play with in conversation and writing. JILL: I heard you mention once that you were interested in British fiction of the nineteenth century, partly because of the rich depiction of character. Is there any relation between that and the photographs in your show? CARTER: Yes. The photographs--especially the black-and-white ones--strike me as particularly stark. I could be wrong, but when I think of British fiction, I think of starkness. When I was a kid in school, every so often we'd see some British film, such as a dramatized novel of Dickens. They were all black-and-white and very bare. Some of the New York buildings bring that general atmosphere to mind. And, come to think of it, the association might not be that far off because many of them are from the same period as that which Dickens writes about.
And that leads back to one of your earlier questions about dramatic effects in the photographs. I have color photographs of every one of the buildings that are in the show. I made different trips and used different films. It was always an interesting decision of whether to use a color or a black-and-white print for the exhibition. You gain something with the color, but you also lose something. Usually, you lose the dramatic effect if you choose the color, but you increase the warmth. Probably my favorite among the black-and-white prints is "71st Street and Amsterdam Ave.," which was used on the poster announcement. That version shows a very nice contrast in brickwork. The color version shows the different-colored bricks that were added at different times. So that you see different patternings in the two versions.
JILL: Let's say that you encountered a couple of English teachers who were captivated by the thematic aspect of the show. They say that they would like to do something similar but can't think of a theme. What would you say to them?
Carter: I think that they would have to be honest about whatever their interest is. Some people have read the statement of purpose that I prepared for the show and said to me, "You are incredibly honest and straightforward." Possibly, they were referring to what they considered somewhat naive about my publicly acknowledging that I had created stories about the images in the photographs. Contemporary photographers are usually far more conservative. I thought to myself, "Well, how else could I be? I started working with texture and wound up looking at past lives. It's not a matter of honesty or dishonesty: that's what was happening in my head."
And if you're going to deal with a theme in a classroom, I think you should start out with what interests you and tell the students what you have in mind and not hide behind what you consider more elegant and sophisticated. If you do attempt something like this, you're going to spend a lot of time. It's not shooting a roll of film--it's shooting lots of rolls of film and reshooting and planning and thinking about the whole thing. You've got to start out with something that's interesting to you, or you will find yourself abandoning the project. I would not advise anyone to begin such an activity with an arbitrary theme in mind, a theme that might seem trendy. Be honest--with yourself and with anyone involved. Be honest and be committed. When you start a project like this, you've got to let it lead you where it wants, and you've got to be willing to follow.
JILL: And in your case that involved enlarging and carefully selecting the final prints and matting and framing them as well as possible and hanging them for exhibition.
Carter: Yes. All of those are very important.
JILL: Why? I mean I know that presentation is important, but why? If you attached the photographs to a bulletin board with thumb tacks, they'd be the same photographs.
Carter: Let's talk about enlargement first. A lot of technical problems are involved but it boils down to this: When the photograph is presented in a gallery for viewing by another person, size is important. Some shots look fine in three-by-five or four-by-six inch prints, but they look very weak when they are enlarged to, say, ten-by-twelve inches. Sometimes, it's just the opposite. The red wall is my favorite among the colored photographs. I had real qualms about that one when it was smaller. I like it, but I thought that it would be far too red. I went ahead and enlarged it and it was wonderful. What had happened was that enlarging had spread the red and allowed the different shades to be far more easily seen. Similar principles are involved in selecting the proportion, colors and texture of the mats and the frames. It's not simply a matter of taking the photographs: it's a matter of preparing them for presentation to the viewer, the person who stands before them in the gallery. You must consider that perspective.
JILL: Do you do the darkroom work yourself?
Carter: Computer technology has made that a whole new ball game. Twenty years ago, making a color enlargement was an enormously complicated undertaking. Now you simply put a negative into a copier-like machine with a viewing screen, drop some coins and the enlargement comes out the other side. There are about five photo shops in New York that have these machines at the present. There are usually people standing around, offering advice on cropping and contrast. It's a family-like atmosphere. It's easy and amazing. It gives an amateur like me far more control over the final product that I had ever dreamed possible before.
JILL: More and more, I see that the computer is becoming intricately involved in the exercise of imagination.
JILL: I think it's very good for a high-ranking college administrator like yourself to do things like exhibit photographs and paintings and sculptures, to write and/or perform music, poetry and whatever. When I was in the gallery looking at the photographs, it occurred to me that there is a minimum of faculty and administrator participation in such activities in colleges and schools in this country. I had never thought of that before.
Carter: When I decided to mount this show, I didn't want people saying, "Oh sure, he's the vice president. He's in charge of the gallery so he gets to use it." I was very sensitive about that issue. I was encouraged by Dorothy Harris [former Dean and Chair of the Art Department at Jersey City State College] and Denise Mullen [present Chair]. Denise is a photographer and a very straightforward person. There's no beating around the bush with her. I showed her the photographs I was thinking about using, and I asked her for her honest opinion. I told her that I didn't want to show something that would turn out to be embarrassing. If Denise had said that she didn't think I should show them, I wouldn't have done it. I was concerned, not about putting myself personally on the line, but about doing something inappropriate with my position.
Someone commented that it really took guts to mount the show. I said, "No. If I were twenty years of age and were looking for a career in photography, then it would take guts. But my career isn't in photography. I have a good job that I like very much and am very fortunate to have a lot of supportive colleagues. So it wasn't a matter of risk-taking from that perspective.
The other part of it that was very positive was that faculty need to see that I do other things, that I have interests in life in addition to working on budgets and attending meetings and whatever. And that relates to your question: I think that it's unfortunate when other teachers and administrators don't show other aspects of themselves, other parts of what makes them whole human beings.
JILL: It's a curious tradition--or lack of tradition. We're always encouraging students to express themselves by doing things outside the classroom, yet we seem to observe a prohibition against our own expressions of individuality. We tell each other--and the students--that role models are critically important. Yet, we shy far away from that very role.
Carter: I think it's partially a result of colleges and universities having gotten larger. And there are exceptions to the pattern of non-involvement that you're referring to. There is, for example, on this campus, a certain amount of faculty participation in the production of plays. But in general, I think you're right. I think that students need to see their teachers and administrators in very different ways. And there is a lot of support by colleagues out there waiting to happen. At the opening of my exhibition, there was a tremendous atmosphere of joy and happiness. The faculty and administrators here--and from other colleges--were happy for me, and it made me feel great! The photographs were well received, and the people were pleased to be there. It helped to bring together faculty and administrators--who are usually very separate.
JILL: In the long run, that might be the single, most important thing you've accomplished in this exhibition.
Carter: Thanks. I hope I did that.
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