Dick Blau on Thicker Than Water and domesticity
What does the word domesticity mean to you?
The complicated mix of feelings I have when I am in the nest we know as home.
What made you decide to photograph your family?
How it all began…
It was the late 60’s. I was directing plays and complaining about the photographs of my productions. I got a camera and quickly learned that it wasn’t the fault of the photographers. It was the productions. Despite my earnest good intentions, the performances were strained and…histrionic.
At the same time that I was trying to photograph on the stage, I also started using the camera in my house. Here, the images I made of my life and its dramas were much richer, more ambiguous, and more compelling. I then gave up the theater, became a photographer, and dedicated myself to the study of unrehearsed expression and the family.
What are you trying to express through your pictures?
These photographs are my part of a discourse. Notes to the people I live with and love. And yet, despite their specificity, I also see them as part of a larger conversation underway in the culture — about how we live over time in the institution of the family, about the complicated space of feeling we call domestic. At the same time, there is also a parallel inquiry taking place. As I am making these pictures, I am also exploring the possibilities, the limits, and the ambiguities of picturing what I see, what I feel, with a camera.
How do you visually represent your place in the family when you are behind the camera?
I do it in several ways: through the periodic self portraits I place in the narrative, through images of myself and my family reflected in mirrors, and by occasionally calling the viewer’s attention to my unseen presence through certain small directorial interventions that I make to generate the shot. In the Wolf Family, for example, I deliberately caused the slight antagonism that seems to pervade the picture by the tone of my command: “Look at me.”
Where is the line between your public and private life?
It may not look like it at first glance, but there is actually a line: there is a lot of life that the viewer is not invited to see. On the other hand, you can also see that there are pictures whose intent or effect is to push, for one reason or another, the limits.
Meeting Jane — who has practiced feminist theory as a kind of performance art to provocative and amusing effect — made it possible for me to explore the line between the public and the private, which was becoming a flashpoint in our culture, with a brilliant and willing and fearless partner. While struggling to engage each other as people, we also came to do our intellectual and artistic work in public. The picture of Max’s birth, for example, is on the cover of Jane’s Thinking Through The Body.
Does your own childhood differ from which you have captured in Thicker Than Water? Did anyone record it?
Yes, it did differ. I was the child of a single working mother for a while — and quite a difficult child at that. I think it’s made me sensitive to the suffering of children, to their life of feeling, to their feral nature.
I do have some pictures of myself. In one I am in my Mother’s arms, she in a beautiful blouse and with an even more beautiful look, looking at me. Another, which I found when I was grown up, also sticks with me. I am in New York, dressed in high 40’s style, looking angry and resolute, running away from my Mother, who seems to be stumbling as she tries to catch up with me. I looked at this one and thought that I could have made that picture.
Which photographers do you draw inspiration from?
It was painting that ravished me, early on. The Dutch and Flemish masters. Memling, for example. Later, Beckmann too. (The last picture in the book, of me in the hotel mirror, has something to do with a Beckmann self portrait I have always loved.) When I got interested in photography, it was Julia Margaret Cameron and Stieglitz I went for. August Sander too. In a more contemporary vein, I was interested in Emmet Gowin. In fact, as I was finishing the Heide series and was looking for a way to widen my frame of reference, I came across Gowin’s family book. I liked the mystery of it all, and his use of the natural world around the house as a kind of stage. I had never been much for nature, but I saw in his work the way it could be used as the setting for the human drama, so I soon found myself working outside in my backyard.
How do you feel about Annie Leibovitz’s photographs of her parents and her children with Susan Sontag?
I don’t know. The pictures struck me as quite awkward, in every sense of the word. I never wanted to spend much time with them so I can’t say anything very specific. I know that when things get really bad, I am not interested in picking up my camera. Normal, survivable bad, that’s different. Anyway, I feel for Leibowitz. That was all very complicated.
You have described the members of your family as actors in a chamber play. Is Thicker Than relates, that the feeling connects.
Actually, I am trying to have it both ways. On the one hand this is the purest of documentaries, with a highly identified and very specific cast of characters, dates, ages, the whole thing. On the other hand, I am trying for something that is much more general.
I have learned how to nudge out the fictive possibility in certain pictures so it hovers there, lending a dreamlike quality that plays well against the harder edges of my insistence on documentary. With its weird light and flattened space, for example, The New Arrival is meant to be read as every kid’s bad dream about the appearance of a sibling. At the same time, it is the record of a very specific moment in the life of a very specific child.
What do you think of Duane Michal’s comment that ‘the camera is an instrument of invention, not to capture reality’?
Of course the camera will fail any strict reality test. Add to this the photographer, who brings his own baggage, and we are making it up as we go along, in the land of projection as much as of representation.
But saying that does not completely persuade me to unmoor the photographic image from its source. (Our dog Gigi recognizes other dogs when they appear on our muted TV. She even tries to talk to them!) Anyway, I like exploring this ambiguous terrain, between the real and not-real of the photographic image, and I am fascinated by the space between the reflection of the outside world and my projections upon it.
Santiago Olmo wrote: ‘Photography implies a real training of the eye – a way of constructing by breaking something down and reconstructing it. It’s a process in which many things are filtered, especially one’s own perspective.’ Please respond to that in reference to Thicker Than Water.
This sounds interesting and somehow germane, but there is not enough here to really know what he means.
Your wife Jane Gallop wrote Living with his Camera, a book discussing your pictures against the theoretical framework of four important photography texts – Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, Susan Sontag’s On Photography, Kathryn Harrison’s novel Exposure, and Pierre Bourdieu’s Photography.
Was it confronting having your wife write about your images in the context of your family life?
No, it was actually a lot of fun, I didn’t mind the criticism, and she got the pictures right. We’d been talking for years about these issues, and we were interested in working with one another because we thought there were deep connections between our individual projects, not to speak of our common project in life. (We are not married, by the way.) In fact, it was a way of revisiting – after a few harrowing years in the midst of a legal case that Jane describes in Feminist Accused of Sexual Harrassment — what we appreciated about one another in the first place.
Was there tension within your family taking so many intimate moments over so many years? And how do they feel about it now as they have their family album published and widely available for purchase.
At times, particularly around my divorce. I pretty much stopped taking pictures of Anna. I was worried she would think that this was the only thing I cared about, so I put the camera aside. (Luckily, I eventually was able to do just enough over those years to make for continuity in the book.) As for Heide, my pictures of her were probably the only thing we never argued about. Turning to the other two kids, Max always lived in his head when he was a kid, so he was easy. I have made many pictures of him crying, for example.
An anecdote about Max. Jane writes of taking Max to Paris as part of a deal involving his taking French III in high school. On the way over, he actually read Living With His Camera and, Jane says, was deeply moved by one of the pictures.
In the The New Arrival, we have gone to the quarry with the newborn Ruby, and I make a picture of three of them: Jane is in the middle with her back toward me, Ruby is on Jane’s shoulder, homely, feeble and unfocussed. On the other side, seeming to come out of Jane’s side, is Max, impossibly handsome, staring directly and desperately at me. Max and I went through a rough patch around his adolescence. When he saw the picture, Jane says a lot of his anger just melted away. He thought I had actually seen him, had understood his pain.
Ruby is much more careful of her image: I just try to respect that, and over time this has paid off . An interesting anecdote about Ruby at the sink in “Morning.” I walked in to the bathroom and saw Ruby, her face covered with soap, turned wordlessly and went upstairs to get my camera. When I got back, she hadn’t moved at all, gave me a deep look, and then went on with her business. Behavior had flawlessly become performance and then moved back into life again.
As for Jane, well, she’s been great about the pictures – and especially so because some of them are a real challenge to any normal conception of personal vanity. We had a long discussion, for example, about the one of her and Max on the black couch. (Summer 1989.) In that case, I left the decision about showing it – one of my all-time favorite pictures — up to her.
While you photographed your own family, you were also working on three photo-ethnographies on music and culture: Polka Happiness (1994), Bright Balkan Morning: Romani Musicians and the Power of Music in Greek Macedonia (2002) and Skyros Carnival (2011).
Did your experiences inform either body of work?
In a certain way, I use the two sides of my work to balance one another out. I decided early on that I didn’t just want to photograph people I knew, and I also thought that there were ranges of feeling I needed to learn about. Happiness, for example. If I had ever gotten to know my subjects really well, I am sure I would have found out that they led quite complicated personal lives too. What I was interested in, however, was that they could somehow let all this go and really enjoy themselves, and this despite the harshness of their circumstances.
As a professor of film studies, why did you choose photography to express yourself, with all of its limitations?
I fell in love with photography, then kind of fell into filmmaking when I tried to find a job. (I’ve made a number of films and videos and performed in others. I enjoy teaching it very much and I am happy not to be teaching photography in any systematic way.) I still retain my original fascination with the still image. It has a kind of mysterious, dignified silence that I really go for. I think it’s more memorable too. A good still image brings with it a shock of recognition. It burns itself into the brain. On top of that, photographs are faster to make and cheaper too. And you can publish them.