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Q&A with 2009 ASMP Arnold Newman Portrait Prizewinner Jeff Riedel


Jeff Riedel, the 2009 winner of the ASMP Arnold Newman Portrait Prize attributes his early interest in pursuing photography to Newman’s portraits. We caught up with Riedel for a Q&A about his work in between his recent assignments, while he was vacationing with his family. His responses to our questions are featured below.

 

© Jeff Riedel
All photos © Jeff Riedel

 

ASMP: Which photographers, including perhaps Arnold Newman, have had an influence on the direction of your work, and what qualities of their work do you admire?

 

Jeff Riedel: Arnold Newman’s pictures were among the first I recall seeing in my late teens that actually caused me to engage with the idea of becoming a photographer. I had seen a good deal of photography — a lot of rock and roll and jazz photography that had a certain appeal and excitement for me — but opening a book of Newman’s portraits was something else entirely. The photographs stimulated a different part of the brain it seemed.

 

I’ve always sort of covered a lot of ground as a photographer in terms of jumping around different genres. There are the two pillars of photography, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, who demonstrated to me that this could actually be done with something of a unified vision behind it. There were also, what appeared to me at the time, the absolutely unflinching pictures of Jacob Riis and his How The Other Half Lives and later Robert Frank’s The Americans. These books seemed to line up certain forces in my mind about the myriad of purposes for photography in exposing definite relations of classes and conditions of life, which really compelled me to pick up a camera at a young age. My grandfather had given me one of his cameras, a 1953 Mamiya C3 twin lens reflex, and I made my very first photographs with that. I traveled with a friend to document a coal miner’s strike down in Southern West Virginia in the late 80s. I was very young, but I photographed miners and their wives and mothers and children. It was the Pittston Mine strike, which was very bitter and ended in defeat for the miners, thanks to the betrayal of the United Mine Workers leadership, which ended up setting the stage for the destruction of gains made by mine workers over previous generations and the loss of tens of thousands of decent paying jobs in the region.

 

I would have to admit as well that seeing the pictures of Jeff Wall and then later Philip Lorca DiCorcia led me down a path to making certain discoveries about my own approach to certain things. I realized after Jeff Wall that one should actually not be afraid to introduce a bunch of artificial light into, in my case, real social scenes.

 

© Jeff Riedel

 

ASMP: Your winning portfolio for the Arnold Newman Prize focused on environmental portraits of homeless people. What was your motivation for this project and how long have you been pursuing this subject?

 

JR: About ten years ago the New York Times Magazine dedicated a whole issue to the subject of poverty in America, which was really just a drop in the bucket compared to what we are beginning to witness currently. I shot a good part of this issue all over the country. The photography director (Kathy Ryan), I think, was aware that I was keenly interested in documenting social relations in the United States and so she assigned a series on America’s homeless to me. I recall that during this particular assignment the possibility of a very different approach to making photojournalistic pictures occurred to me, which was somewhat of a departure from what I was accustomed to seeing. The iconic images of social conditions shot by someone like Bruce Davidson have their strength in their starkness — in their grittiness. There’s something about those pictures and much of the great photojournalism over past generations, a certain rawness that makes the pictures themselves feel impoverished — not artistically by any means, but technically, I guess you could say. Instead of shooting available light with a 35mm camera, or using a fill flash to shoot from the hip in a situation unfolding in front of the camera, I decided to treat the subject matter quite differently.

 

© Jeff Riedel

 

ASMP: Please describe your working methods. How much time is typically involved in producing your documentary portraits?

 

JR: I would scout and find situations that were actually occurring before my eyes — for example, a man living in his car in Silicon Valley who was actually a hotel worker who could no longer afford his rent. Instead of merely documenting the occurrence, I chose to wake the man up and explain the reason I was there and proceed to set up a “scene” as it actually existed, but with the allowance or participation of the subject himself, whereby I would actually light the picture (the interior of the car as well as the exterior) with the subject doing nothing other than what he was doing when I first encountered him. And I chose to shoot it all with a 4”x5” camera on a tripod. I think this added an additional richness to the image, or something very different in terms of perspective and depth to the picture. The process would take about 15 minutes to set up and I got to the point where I didn’t even have to rely on a light meter — I’d take numerous battery powered strobes, turn most of them onto full power and light the scene. I’d instinctively know the setting for my lens (something like f/16 at a 250th of a second during daylight hours or much longer shutter speeds at night). I’d take a couple of Polaroids and be on my way. It had to be fast, so I figured out how to make it so.

 

© Jeff Riedel

 

ASMP: What qualities about your subjects and their situations were you trying to convey in your portraits?

 

JR: This process was something I began to define in my own mind as something akin to photojournalism with the full cooperation of the subject — or photojournalism meets art photography I guess you might say. I was not making anything up, just really asking them to stay put in whatever it was they were doing (with dialogue driving certain movements) long enough for me to add some light and make a photograph.

 

The idea being that photographic film bears certain limitations that the human eye does not, in the sense that our eyes can adjust in an instant to the varying conditions of light and take in a scene, that is, to look into the variance of values and take them in. Film-based and even digital photography does not work in the same way with anything approaching the same degree of latitude that we actually see with our eyes. Without properly lighting a scene you might expose for the man sleeping in his car, but be it day or night, you will not see the same relationship of light in the way we take it in naturally. Lighting a scene, similarly to the way a cinematographer does, begins to deal with these problems. You want to see the man in the car illuminated and at the same time witness the diffused light of the rainy day in the background, keeping the mood without it blowing out. My goal was to try to present subject matter of social importance in a way that is real, almost hyper-real. I wanted the images to have the depth and richness that real life contains. It is a heavy combination of style with substance.

 

And with this kind of portraiture, again we are not making anything up, but it does require that your subject knows your intent. If they say no thank you, well, you simply cannot make a photograph.

 

© Jeff Riedel

 

ASMP: Please give us some background about your submission for the Newman Prize, your series on New York’s homeless that was published in New York magazine. How did this project come about?

 

JR: Jody Quon was one of my photo editors at the New York Times Magazine at the time of the poverty portfolio and she eventually went on to take the helm at New York magazine’s photography department. She phoned me last year and described an idea that they had come up with about documenting a single night among the homeless of New York City and referenced the pictures that I had done for the New York Times Magazine nearly a decade before. She felt that the approach I had taken for the Times portfolio would be perfect for what they were hoping to achieve for their story. The difference with this was that we’d have to shoot an entire portfolio in a single night.

 

The story was really about how the Bloomberg administration had come in promising to alleviate conditions of homelessness in New York and, as we know, did nothing of the kind. This was at a time last year when the housing bubble was merely beginning to burst and before the banks and financial houses came crashing down and the American economy slid into what we all recognize to be the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. I remember saying at the time that the coming foreclosures and rising unemployment, combined with the greatest inequality in America since the era of the robber barons, would create an explosion of homelessness in New York and throughout the country. I think that process is well under way right now. We are now beginning to once again see the emergence of tent cities around the country.

 

© Jeff Riedel

 

ASMP: You recently completed an extensive project revolving around the 2008 Presidential campaign, with a 32-page photo essay in GQ magazine. Describe the experience of photographing some of the most powerful people in the country, and how that work differed from photographing the powerless.

 

JR: Yes, there is a blaring contradiction in photographing the nation’s most powerful (and wealthy, of course, which goes hand in hand) and photographing the country’s weakest. It’s been something I’ve always tried to bare out in my photography. Again, I feel that what’s taken place over the last several decades in America, the looting of wealth from the top, through outright criminality and corruption, as we now know, and the impoverishment of large sections of the population, which has transformed our country into more of an oligarchy than a democracy. There have been very conscious policies pursued by Wall Street with the full support of the US government over the past generation (both Democratic administrations as well as Republican) to commit to a vast transfer of wealth from the bottom of American society to the very top. And this process has included a massive destruction of productive forces — factories, jobs etc. Entire industries that were not producing enough wealth and profit for increasingly greedy appetites were simply shut down or moved overseas. Millions have lost their jobs in manufacturing. Entire communities, towns, and regions of the country for that matter, have been virtually wiped out.

 

There is a great scene from the movie “Other People’s Money” that stands out in my mind. Gregory Peck stands up before the board that is about to vote to close down his factory and says something like, “You know the only real difference between now and the days of the monopoly capitalists and robber barons is that at least they left something behind — railroads, steel mills, factories, and so on, but the only thing being left behind by Wall Street today is destruction.” Corporate earnings in this country have shifted rapidly from the manufacturing of real things (real wealth) to the financial industry (fictitious wealth) with catastrophic consequences for millions of working people.

 

I really believe this, and so I feel impassioned to show these contradictions that exist in our world in my photography. Yes, much of this is assignment work, but I think many of the editors and art directors that I work with at the magazines know me somewhat and know where some of my passions lie.

 

© Jeff Riedel

 

ASMP: Do you have any plans for future work on this theme and, if so, can you tell us anything about how you’d like to see it evolve?

 

JR: I do have plans to create a book on America that deals with just these contradictions at some point, hopefully in the not-too-distant future; I’ve actually been working toward that for some time. I know it seems like a very different country or world today than the one our grandparents might have lived through — what we’ve seen in the photographs of the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s, but things are really all not that much different now. In many ways I think they’re about to get much worse. In the policies of his New Deal, Roosevelt was pressured into granting massive concessions to the millions of struggling working people in America, pouring hundreds of billions in work programs, unemployment and welfare to prevent the collapse of the system. Today, Obama has taken the helm dealing with what is looking very much like the “New” Great Depression by throwing trillions at the banks and announcing cuts in social spending — a very different picture than what Roosevelt did.

 

I think things are going to get very, very bad here. It will change the way millions of people think about things. There will be an emergence of “social thinking” and I think that this would be a great start in the right direction. Photography will play a very big part — as it has done so powerfully in the past — in the presentation of truth and the transformation of social and historical consciousness. My intention as a photographer is to be a participant in this process.

 

© Jeff Riedel