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Q & A with Richard Nagler, author of Word on the Street

Posted by >>>>> on December 2, 2010

1.  Each photo in your new book, WORD ON THE STREET, pairs a word that appears in a public space with a person. Tell us about how you capture these images. How do you choose the right passer-by? How long does it usually take you to capture these images?

I capture these WORD pictures by being extremely patient or extremely luck, or both. Some pictures take days or weeks, and some pictures take a second. I just try to be aware and alert to the experience. I’ll see a word and then try to imagine and hope that a particular person or encounter will happen in front of or near the word. Quite often, what I’m hoping for never happens, and something entirely unexpected will occur that is more enlightening or interesting. I often take many pictures and then select the one with a person who truly helps create a striking juxtaposition with the word. Central to this pursuit, for me, is to always have a camera with me. The frustration of seeing a potential picture and not being equipped to capture it is just too much to bear.

2.  Can you tell us the story behind the photo that includes the word “time” and an elderly woman peering out of a window. This was the image that sparked your interest in capturing words and people together. Why?

TIME was the first of these pictures and the one that inspired me to go off on this photographic pursuit which is now over thirty years in its journey. I was photographing in downtown Oakland and found myself on 14th Street when I saw this old sign that read TIME. As I looked up an old woman pushed aside a curtain and peered out a window. Before I could raise my camera, she disappeared. I was so frustrated that I had not photographed that beautiful and poignant inter-relationship, that I returned there many times over several weeks hoping that the scene would repeat itself for my camera. I detail in my text for the book the long process that finally, successfully, resulted in the photograph TIME. I find that TIME and the images that followed it over thirty plus years are simple, yet complex, compositions that have a poetic quality. They are reflections on life and the complexities of the human experience. Each viewer can bring their own interpretation, but for me they also serve as a visual diary of my life and what I was thinking and feeling at the time.

3.  You’ve been working on this series of photos for over three decades, and Allen Ginsburg was initially involved in the project. Can you tell us the story behind that?

After two successful books of photography in which I had worked with two extraordinary writers, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Ishmael Reed, I thought the WORD photographs would benefit from a collaboration with an extraordinary poet. Allen Ginsberg immediately came to mind. It turned out I knew someone who knew someone who new Ginsberg. It took two years of correspondence, but I finally got some pictures to Allen. He immediately grasped and “got” the pictures. As a poet and also as a photography lover, he immediately agreed to write original poetry that would accompany the photographs. We met on several occasions in New York City and San Francisco to discuss the project, but in late 1996 I learned that he had just received a terrible medical diagnosis. He died just a few months later in April 1997. I was saddened and disappointed, but I did keep taking WORD images inspired by the word IMMORTAL in the window of City Lights Bookstore in a memorial to Allen’s passing. It was ten years later that I decided to try again to publish a book of this project.

4.  Who are some of the photographers who have inspired your visual aesthetic?

I love photography am I am fortunate to live with wonderful examples in my collection of street photography at home. Particularly important to me are works by Bruce Davidson, Helen Levitt, Diane Arbus, John Gutmann, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and others. I love to go out, inspired by their examples, and photograph the expected and unexpected rhythm, poetry, and beauty of the life on the streets.

5.  In his foreword to WORD ON THE STREET renowned art critic Peter Selz places the photos in the book in the history of art that incorporates words and images. Can you tell us why many American Pop artists took this approach, and how do you think you are continuing in that tradition?

Words form interesting graphic compositions, as the American Pop Artists manifested in many of their works, but I am more influenced by the great California figurative artists like Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, Nathan Oliveira, and Elmer Bishoff. Their great figurative works show enormous respect for the individual in an architectural or natural space. That is what I am trying to replicate in my photography. Words themselves can be beautiful and graceful, but it is their connection to the human being and the human condition that, I believe, gives them great power in WORD ON THE STREET.

6.  Do you have any favorites among the photos in WORD ON THE STREET, and if so what makes these photos special for you?

TIME is my favorite for setting me on this aesthetic path. I love IMAGINE, and SPECIAL, and ETERNAL but each WORD photograph I have captured holds great meaning and memories for me.

7.  The photos almost demand that viewers create a story that explains the connection between the word and the individual. As the artist, you, of course, have your own story that explains each pairing. Yet, I could see how different viewers could create radically different stories, and it seems like you struck a delicate balance between choosing the images that told your story, but still left enough space for the viewer to have his or her own interpretation. I’m thinking, in particular, of the photo that appears on the cover of the book, which has the word “America” in the background, a weather-beaten man slumped over lighting a cigarette in the foreground, with an abandoned Pepsi can sitting across from him. How do you interpret that image and what are some other interpretations you’ve heard?

When I saw the combination of the word AMERICA (which I had been watching for weeks) and the man sitting there, I immediately thought of Will Rogers and Norman Rockwell. The figure just seemed like a prototypical American image of another generation. I leaned over and took that picture out of the passenger window of my car. It was an instantaneous shot that just seemed right at the time. I was in traffic so I only had a second to take it. I haven’t heard any other interpretations yet, but I am anxious to hear them.

8.  Out of the 70 photos in the book, 30 are black and white and the remaining are in color. How did you choose which images to represent in black and white and which to represent in color?

All the pictures I took for the WORD project were originally in color. It is when I view them later and print them that I sometimes decide that some work better in black and white. Also a conversation with the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti when I showed him my portfolio inspired me to consider many of the images as black and white. But I like having the option and often change my mind. I’ve printed some in black and white and color too. Since I primarily collect black and white photography, I have a desire to create great black and white images, but color often enhances and amplifies the WORD images.

9.  Where were these photos taken, and how do you think their location influenced them?

Wherever I am or travel I am always on the hunt for isolated words that I can try to capture with a person who relates to the word in a meaningful, antithetical, or humorous way. There are pictures in WORD ON THE STREET from San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, New York City, Philadelphia, Memphis, London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Tel Aviv among other places. I don’t know if the location really influences the pictures. It’s just always hard to find a word isolated in space, so I’m looking wherever I am.

10. What are you working on now?

I am working on a body of photographs that I hope will become my fourth book. The working title is LOOKING AT ART. Sometimes I think of it as WORDS WITHOUT WORDS. The work is all taken in art museums and galleries and consists of a person or persons looking at a work of art. Like the WORD pictures, the ART images manifest interesting parallels that are complete visual accidents that have caught my eye. And when they capture something special about the human condition or experience, I know that I have taken a significant photograph.

View Photos from WORD ON THE STREET

ABOUT RICHARD NAGLER

Richard Nagler’s work has been featured in the New York Times, Artforum International, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications; shown in museums and galleries around the world; and included in prominent public and private collections. Nagler is respected as an observer with a unique photographic vision as well as a photography collector with a strong sense of history. WORD ON THE STREET is his third book of photography. He is represented by George Krevsky Gallery and currently lives in San Francisco.

BOOK INFO

Word on the Street

Photographs by Richard Nagler

Foreword by Peter Selz

10 x 11 • 128 pages  • 70 Photographs

Hardcover • 978-1-59714-141-3 • $45.00

Paperback • 978-1-59714-140-6 • $25.00

Photography Pub Month: Nov 2010

MEDIA CONTACT:

Lorna Garano

lornagarano@gmail.com

510-922-9765

http://www.lornagarano.com

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