Linda Connor has been teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute since 1969. She received a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and a MS from the Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology. She has received numerous awards including NEA grants and a Guggenheim fellowship. Her publications include On the Music of the Spheres, Visits, Luminance, Spiritual Journey, Linda Connor, and Solos. She is the founder of Photo Alliance. Her imagery of ancient and sacred places explores the relationship between nature, civilization and spirituality. Connor has also printed images from glass negatives from the Lick Observatory in California. Shown in tandem with the Lick Observatory images, her photographs of human spirituality acquire an even broader context. Connor’s images are contact printed on printing-out paper in sunlight and gold toned to achieve a rich reddish brown hue. Jim Kasson interviewed Linda Connor at her home in San Anselmo, California.
JK: You got your Masters and immediately started teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute. Were you some kind of prodigy?
LC: Not really, but I knew that I was going to do photography for the rest of my life, and it gave me the chutzpah to overcome my terror. I was just out of school, and had moved to San Francisco. I had met Imogen Cunningham in Chicago when she had come to the Institute of Design as a visiting artist. Imogen introduced me to Jerry Burchard and Jack Welpott at the Art Institute, and Jerry invited me in for an interview. At the time I had an eye infection, and I was sporting a black Hathaway patch, a lot of blond hair, and a mini skirt. In the interview Jerry asked me my sign. It was very sixties/California. But he didn’t have any work. One of the pictures in my portfolio used a glass plate negative, and he told me that he had spent the last summer at the Lick Observatory making prints of some of their plates. I was intrigued by that. I went away from the interview with no job but having had a nice conversation. I couldn’t find another teaching job, so I tried to do commercial work, and I was really bad at that. I decided to call Jerry back to see if I could get a job at Lick printing their plates. He said: “Thank goodness you called. I didn’t know how to get hold of you. It looks like we have a standby class in the evening, in beginning photography. Would you like to teach it?” So that’s how I got my foot in the door. It’s funny how, years later, I realized how these glass plates of the heavens have altered my life. Maybe there’s some truth to the astrology angle.
JK: How does your teaching relate to your photography?
LC: Teaching allows me to think about photography most of the time. I love the media, and I love images. I have a visual mind, and teaching allows me to exercise that. I love the intensity of working with imagery, both the students’ work and the slide shows that I do for my classes.
JK: Tell me about the slide lectures.
LC: I’m not lecturing, but presenting images to generate ideas. I have a very large slide collection and I do a show for my students nearly every week. Sometimes the photographs are by famous photographers, but often not. I show a lot of slides, often loosely associated around a theme. I mix things up. I think it’s important to let the students draw their own conclusions. Different students will remember different parts of the presentation and different images. My hope is that the students will remember what they need to.
JK: Give me an example of a theme.
LC: Right now I’m thinking of pulling together a slide show using Saul Steinberg’s cartoons of the street together with Arbus’, Winogrand’s, and Friedlander’s sixties photographs from New York City.
JK: How would you compare the three venues in which you teach: undergraduate school, graduate school, and workshops?
LC: I enjoy it all. The undergrads tend to be messy but fun, and usually they don’t have too much of an artitude…
JK: Nice word.
LC: …but I’m not too interested in teaching beginning students: the early craft stuff and the stage where they’re just enthralled to have something come out. I’m more interested in thoughts about imagery and about making images, and people’s relationship to seeing and thinking about what they’re seeing; that usually comes a bit later in their development. I prefer intermediate to advanced students.
JK: What’s your teaching style?
LC: I teach a lot by looking at pictures. That happens in the slide shows and in critiques. Spend a little time with a student’s images, pull out the duds, rearrange them, and something totally different from what they were aware of can present itself. That’s a thrill. It takes them by surprise that some interpretation is in the work and they haven’t seen it. I’ve had students who present one batch of work, part of which is dark, moody, and poetic, and some that’s more superficial, maybe even with the same subject matter. Say they’re walking down the street making photographs. If you pull out the parking signs and leave the wet gunk in the gutter with the rope, then you end up with a metaphor for angst, and when you concentrate it, then you’re beginning to communicate.
JK: What do you like about teaching graduates?
LC: I’ve had wonderful graduate students. They’re a thrill and provide some really wonderful dialogs. I like it because they can be closer to being a peer. Their sense of their life in relation to their work is more developed. I like their energy and their commitment. I see them more as being part of the photographic community.
LC: They’re fun. They’re a challenge. There your responsibility is twofold: to give the students a jolt, and to encourage. They tend to have lives that don’t facilitate their being committed artists. So part of it is talking to them about how they could get more feedback and move more smoothly in their development. Simple things like hiring a local grad student to do proofing. If you’re a lawyer you can afford to pay somebody twelve bucks an hour to make a stack of prints once a month. Once you have those, you have a much better idea of what negatives you want to print seriously. Then there are the professionals from a field that lacks a creative and intuitive side. They really want to explore that side, so they go into photography. Unfortunatly they often think that art is achieved in the same way that they became a CPA.
JK: The logical result of that approach is that you end up with an exquisite sense of craft and nothing to say.
LC: Right. Ansel and his approach to photography often plays into that. The techies see him as a god. But if you work with a sense of humor, most of the people in the workshop understand that there are other ways of approaching photography.
JK: I did a workshop with you 20 years ago. Your comments on my pictures were insightful and changed the way I made photographs. I was surprised at the time, because I didn’t resonate with the petrogylph images that you were making then.
LC: If somebody comes to me with a pile of pictures, and I’m allowed time to mull them over and start a loose set of ideas, then I see something or an association comes up and the pictures begin to speak for themselves, and I’m pretty good at responding. I’ve had a lot of practice now, and I like the challenge of being given a pile of work and sussing out the person who gave it to me and being able to undermine them a little bit and build them up a little bit.
JK: How did your approach to photography and your choice of equipment evolve over the years? Did the equipment you were using change the kind of images you made, or did your ideas for the images come first, and you selected your equipment to suit?
LC: I started out with a 35. In my beginning photography class we had to use a 4×5, a Calumet, and I thought it was the most God-awful thing ever invented. It wasn’t until my senior year at RISD that I realized that my photographic style–the Walker Evens look that I wanted to achieve–in part had to do with the view camera. So I started using the view camera again, and from then on I’ve used one. In 1972, I was given a nice old Century 8×10 that had belonged to my great-aunt who had studied with Clarence White. It had a photosecessionist-style soft focus lens. I used that for about five years. Solos, the book with the soft focus work, came from that. Then I started occasionally putting a sharp lens on the Century. The camera was pretty frail and I knock things around badly, so I got an 8×10 Deardorff. By 1978 or ‘79 I was doing sharp work exclusively.
JK: Did you always make contact prints?
LC: Even before I got the 8×10, I had been experimenting with cut negatives, and some collagey things with printing-out paper. When I got the first 8×10 with a soft focus lens, it seemed like a perfect combination. The soft focus lens was shutterless, and I was shooting wide open to get the softest effect, so my negatives were really dense, and they worked really well with printing-out paper. I was living in San Francisco at the time and I had a little back garden and so I could print outside.
JK: So, there’s no reaction against modern photographic practices in your approach?
LC: [Laughs] No. Sometimes when I’m in a grumpy mood about myself, I do sometimes feel like a dinosaur. One of the wonderful things about teaching is that even though I have my own proclivities, what my students are up to keeps me on my toes. I like having the challenge of new ideas, but I also like the idea that I don’t have to do it all.
JK: When you use printing-out paper, do you have any way to apply local controls?
LC: Almost never. I have one image that has a horizon line. I’ll put that in the house shadow to give the sky a longer exposure.
JK: When did you take the first picture that you still really like?
LC: Probably as an undergraduate: some semi-documentary, semi-Walker Evans stuff. I was working in an old-age home. The only place these women had left to make their own was their bureau top. This was the place that they put their mementos and keepsakes. I found that very touching, and I made photographs of what they kept there.
JK: What photographers influenced you early in your career?
LC: Harry Callahan at Rhode Island. Then I worked with Aaron Siskind in Chicago. Julia Margaret Cameron, Frederick Sommer, and Atget were important to me. Walker Evans was a huge influence in the early years. One of the most long-lasting influences was Emmet Gowan, who was a graduate student when I was finishing up my undergrad. He was such an enthusiastic practitioner. Stieglitz’s pictures of Georgia O’Keeffe really blew him away, so he did pictures in a similar manner, just to learn what Stieglitz confronted when he made his images. He was just that kind of unabashed learner.
JK: At some time you acquired a great interest in cultural relics. How did that happen?
LC: It happened after I stopped doing the soft-focus work. One of the things that I liked about the soft-focus images was that they hit an emotional/symbolic/poetic place that is for me very important. The soft focus discourages a factual response and increases the metaphorical. Soft focus seems to dislodge logic. I wanted to be able to capture that with the sharp camera. But with a sharp image you’re dealing with the specifics of the world. The sharp focus gives the viewer an image that he or she feels is logical, so the automatic response is logical, and I’ve never been particularly interested in the logical in my art. I want to get at what the soul knows. I want to take an ordinary scene and make it revelatory, go through the facts and out the other side. You have to use sequence or scale to undermine the viewer’s sense of logic. Frederic Sommer had a marvelous term: poetic logic. When I started using the sharp lens, I found that you had to allow for the content of the subject. If you have a beautiful landscape with a post box in it, you aren’t dealing with a timeless landscape anymore. I found that I had to find substantive spiritual subject matter in order to get those pictures to work. I’m interested in the relationship of nature to spirituality, and working in a timeless zone. Even though you know it’s a photograph that had to have been taken at a specific time, it could have been done in 1890, 1970, or 2003, and after a while time isn’t important in the image.
JK: The artifacts are subject matter that resonate with us on a spiritual level.
LC: Sometimes, but sometimes it’s the picture or putting one picture next to the other that makes that happen. It’s like poetry. You can have a line in a poem that is very specific, say about a cat yawning, but within the context of the poem it’s about awareness or it has a philosophical position. It has more to do with how we experience life and imagine our own mind and spirit. I am intrigued with the way that things are brought from the profane and ordinary into the sacred.
JK: How do you find the spiritual places in our travels?
LC: I go where the tourists go. The tourist route leads to the good stuff. But you can’t have a busload of people waiting for you; you have to go on your own, with as flexible a schedule as possible.
JK: For myself, I’ve decided that the 8×10 is a studio camera.
LC: That’s very sensible.
JK: How do you manage to lug all that equipment all over the world?
LC: I have a Phillips camera, which is fairly light. The film holders and film are more of a problem. I tend to settle down in one place and take day trips from there. I go to places where I can afford to hire somebody to help with the equipment.
Q; How much do you travel?
LC: I try to make at least one trip a year. Usually I’m there for a month or two.
JK: Tell me about PhotoAlliance.
LC: I was involved with the Friends of Photography for a long time. I was an advisory trustee and an artist trustee even before they moved to San Francisco from Carmel. When they got to San Francisco, they had difficulties stemming from the mercurial nature of both the rental market and the fundraising environment. Running a museum was a very ambitious financial project, ultimately more ambitious than they could pull off. As it was going under, I was frustrated to think that they couldn’t reinvent themselves somehow: cooperate with some other institutions, share a place, or something. None of that happened, but in the process of thinking about that came the seed ideas for PhotoAlliance: an organization that wouldn’t have a gallery, wouldn’t be paying rent, and wouldn’t have a big staff. Instead of doing a lot of mailings and publications, we would use the Internet, and we’d share events and facilities with other institutions.
JK: It must have taken a lot of work.
LC: Quite frankly, I don’t know how I pulled it off. When our young board had things together and a tentative working plan, Paul Sack had enough faith in us to help us acquire start-up funds. We didn’t hire a director at first because the person we wanted wasn’t available. We got started with a lecture series that’s been very successful. We’ve done some portfolio reviews and we’ve started our workshop program. The web site and email announcements are running, but need some further development. We’ve put together a very wonderful board—it’s almost all photographers. There’s a lot of enthusiasm. Now we have an energetic and capable director, Kate Stewart. She’s working half time for us and working on her MFA at the Art Institute. She has an undergraduate degree in photojournalism, has a background in museum work, and has an MBA. We’re very fortunate to have her. I’d like in a few years to have her in a full time position.
JK: If somebody wanted to find out more about PhotoAlliance, where would they point their browser?
LC: www.photoalliance.org If they sign in with their email address, they’ll receive monthly announcements of programs and print offerings.
JK: Who are some of the people on the board?
LC: Jane Baldwin, Debra Bloomfield, Steven Brock, William Carter, Robert Dawson, Hank Feir, Ernie Jung, Diane Krause, David Maisel, Norma Quintana, Laura Sackett, Bill Scharf, and Vicki Topaz. Many of these people are being shown at the CPA gallery.
JK: Tell me about your workshops.
LC: Photo Alliance is slowly building up our workshop program. I spent yesterday with my assistant working out some of the details about taking a group to Turkey. Bob Dawson has been taking a group once a year to Alcatraz. We’ve applied for a permit to spend the night there. We had a wonderful workshop in Hawaii that I ran with David Liittschwager and Wayne Levin. Mark Klett, Bob Dawson and Ellen Manchester led a workshop about re-photography in SF. We’ve done portfolio reviews, and slide slams, and we’re doing a symposium on photo book publishing.
JK: What’s a lecture like?
LC: We use the San Francisco Art Institute Lecture Hall, which holds 250 people. Art Institute students can attend for free. We have a student price, and the general admission price is $8.00. We have an introductory speaker, usually an emerging artist or a local artist whose work has some relationship to the theme of the main speaker. The café at the Art Institute is open afterwards for a reception for the presenters, and we have a book sale and book signing, wine and cookies and time for people to talk about the lecture.