Ted Orland interview

Ted Orland

February 2003

Jim Kasson interviewed Ted Orland at Ted’s studio in Santa Cruz, California.

JK: How’d you get started in photography?

TO: I started in the school of architecture at University of Southern California, and ended up with a degree in industrial design. I went to work for Charles Eames, the designer. I did exhibit design, master planning, and model making, and began to do photography at the Eames office.

JK: In a utilitarian way?

TO: Absolutely. I was the darkroom guy. Eames was immensely curious. You’d work for weeks or months on assignments that didn’t have a real hard-edged commercial outcome. I once spent about six months sitting in the back of the big warehouse that we worked in, where we had about twenty 50-gallon saltwater aquarium tanks, filled with anemones, little sharks, starfish, and everything imaginable. We were working on a project that was going to be a plan for a national aquarium. My job was to sit back there with a camera and close-up lenses all day long, waiting for something to eat something else, and photograph the action. I was working there in 1966, and spotted an ad in the back of Popular Photo magazine saying that Ansel Adams (whom I’d never heard of) was going to teach a two-week workshop in Yosemite (which I’d never been to) and that it was two weeks for $150. It seemed a harmless way to spend a summer vacation. After that things just veered off in the direction of photography.

JK: So it was just a whim?

TO: Sort of, but I was working in an artistic field and I wanted to throw myself into the things I was working on. But I’d never seen a photography exhibit. I didn’t know the names of any of the photographers, except for maybe Weston.

JK: What was the workshop like?

TO: Ansel always had other instructors in the workshops, but in the sixties, the other instructors weren’t famous photographers, and they weren’t artists from different genre. Later on, he would have Jerry Uelsmann, David Hockney and so on. But early on it was Ansel, Henry Gilpin, Dick Garrod, Al Weber, Milt Halberstadt, and Steve Crouch. Ansel would give the Zone System lecture, pointing at the stone tablets with the nine Zones listed on it, and afterwards Al Weber and the others would explain what the master really meant. Ansel would invariably screw up the numbers when he was lecturing, but nobody really cared. When Ansel would make a mistake, the students would say, “Wow, even the gods are mortal.” I’m dead sure that for the entire workshop I pretty much hid like a scared rabbit. If Ansel was photographing a tree, I’d be on the exact opposite side where he’d never see me. But I absorbed everything, and two weeks later the import of it all fell over on me like a ton of bricks. I suddenly saw the ramifications of what you could do with photography.

JK: How did you get to be an instructor?

TO: When the next spring rolled around, I wrote Ansel a letter and said that since I was still using my little 35mm camera, I’d be happy to be his assistant and carry his “real” camera too. I enclosed my tuition check with the letter. About a week later, I got back a fat envelope from Ansel, and the first thing that fell out when I opened it was my check. I thought, “Uh-oh, this is not a good sign.” But in the letter he offered to trade my tuition for my being his assistant. I was an assistant for two or three years, and then he promoted me to instructor, which was an incredible misnomer. At the time, he was beginning to get famous photographers to co-teach the workshops, so you’d have a workshop, and the brochure would read: Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock, Jerry Uelsmann, Paul Caponigro and Ted Orland. Ted who?

JK: You started out with traditional landscapes.

TO: For the first five years that I was into it, black and white large format landscape photography was all I knew.  I swallowed the Zone System hook, line and sinker.

JK: You have a terrific reputation as a teacher. What drew you in that direction?

TO: I had been working in the design business for about eight years full time, and full time in Eames office was nine in the morning until about midnight, with an hour off for dinner. Eventually I got a little disillusioned. I wanted to do something substantial and meaningful, but we were always doing projects like world’s fairs and exhibits, that had a life span of weeks. You’d work on them for a year, they’d be up for six weeks, and then everything was dismantled, and you were back to square one again. I felt like nothing I was doing was anything more than ephemera. So I decided teaching would be a good thing, and for that I needed to get a Master’s degree. I enrolled at San Francisco State in a program they’d just initiated called Interdisciplinary Creative Arts.

JK: This wasn’t the Don Worth/Jack Welpott program?

TO: It wasn’t their department, but Don and Jack allowed me to take their classes. It was the best of both worlds: I was in a relatively unstructured program, but I could still take classes in the photography department. As I was finishing up the degree, and before I had to face the issue of finding a teaching job, Liliane DeCock, Ansel’s assistant was about to marry and move to the East coast. So Ansel phoned one day and asked if I’d like to come down and work at his house in Carmel Highlands. It was that simple.

JK: For your own work, you were still doing black and white landscapes?

TO: Artistically, my work stayed fairly conservative for a while, but at a certain point you have to put some aesthetic distance between you and your mentor or else you become someone who’s only remembered as a follower shining in the reflected glow of the master.  I eventually realized that I simply didn’t lead a fine-grained life. I enjoyed the craft and the precision, but when it came to the pictures I was making, I became aware that for every picture I made, there were a whole stack of images that I wasn’t making because the equipment that I used didn’t lend itself to that.

JK: How so?

TO: In the Zone System approach there’s this logical progression: you start with the idea that there’s such a thing as the best possible negative; you quickly learn that to get that ideal negative, you need to develop it individually; that means you need sheet film; that means working with a large camera; a large negative can capture a lot of detail, and pretty soon that evolves into a moral imperative that you should get a lot of detail; so then you stop down the lens to get greater depth of field, which leads to long exposures, which means you need a tripod, and so you photograph things that patiently stand still for a very long time—like trees, rocks and water. And you end up not getting any pictures of your kid.

JK: After a while, you broke out of that mold.

TO: It was slow and progressive, but I don’t think the final piece fell into place until my son turned eighteen and I decided that for his birthday I’d make him an album of pictures of him spanning the years from the time he was born.  In the course of locating those pictures, I found that for every photograph I’d taken of Jon—who is very important to me—I had a hundred pictures of dead tree stumps, peeling paint, cemetery gravestones and geometric abstractions, which really didn’t matter nearly as much. Right then and there I realized that I needed to draw a line from my life to my art that was short and clear—that I needed to find a way to photograph the things that were actually part of my day-to-day life. That sent me off in the direction of smaller cameras. Today I hang this little ten-dollar plastic camera around my neck, and walk down the road and basically photograph whatever intriguing things cross my path. The Holga is portable and expendable and easy to use, and it sees the world the way I do. It’s sharp in the middle, fades to fuzziness and vignetting at the edges, and even throws in a few surprises via lens flare and light leaks along the way. And you never know exactly what’s going to show up in the picture.

JK: You didn’t just jump from large-format black and white to the Holga, did you?

TO: I have a pronounced “been there, done that” complex, and seem to develop conceptual antibodies to my own photographs. If you gave me a commercial job and asked me to take a large format camera to Yosemite today and make a classic landscape, I could do that, but I don’t have a motivating inner force to make those pictures for myself. It isn’t a matter of moving from large to small format—I use 2-1/4 cameras today—but rather toward placing fewer and fewer obstacles between seeing something and photographing it. And on another conceptual front, I’ve moved slowly from straight B&W to hand colored prints. And recently I discovered—you won’t believe this—that they make film that actually records images directly in color! Wow!

JK: How’d that change toward color start?

TO: I was teaching at the University of Oregon. They had a school gallery where different art classes each put up their work for a week or two. You’d have a week of watercolor, a week of oils, and a week of photography, and so on. The etching people would come in with these great big multicolored pictures, the oil painters would come in with bright canvases, and then photography’s turn would come—and you’d get a wall of little black and white 8x10s. It looked so grey, and it seemed so constrained compared to all the other art that was out there. I wanted to break out of that, but I didn’t want to use color film and paper. I like to keep everything in house. I want to develop the film. I want to make the print. I even want to do the things I don’t like to do, like spotting. But processing color seemed beyond what I wanted to do. Besides, I wanted to choose the colors. I didn’t want to have to take a Kodachrome sky because the film gave me that. The cameras kind of shifted underneath, but I kept on doing hand coloring until a few months ago, when I stopped pulling prints out of the darkroom.

JK: How long have you been doing digital photography?

TO: I worked into it over many years. Sometime during the mid-eighties the Macintosh came out, and I began using it for photography. The early capabilities were rudimentary. There were no scanners or photo programs. The only way to get a photograph into the computer was to hook up a TV camera. The screen at the time could only display pure black or pure white pixels, no shades of grey. I enjoyed experimenting, but the work I produced never made it to the mounting stage because the equipment just couldn’t capture or reproduce the subtleties I was looking for. What I really wanted to produce was a digital counterpart to my hand colored images. There were, however, big obstacles to doing something with the degree of finesse that I needed. The inks were notoriously impermanent, the technology simply wasn’t fully developed, and everything was hideously expensive. Twelve years ago it cost me five hundred dollars to add one megabyte of RAM to my computer. It’s only been in the last five years that you could begin to generate output that was capable of capturing something as subtle the quality of light in a subject. You could get bright colors, you could get good blacks, but the thought of capturing the wetness of fog and all the other intangibles you capture in traditional photography were not possible. Now they are.

JK: What kind of work are you doing digitally?

TO: The first path I started down was scanning in some of my existing hand colored photographic prints, and tweaking them until I could recreate the same result in the form of inkjet prints. Having spent 20 or more years doing hand coloring, I knew I wasn’t instantly going to be able to add color in the computer as well as I could apply oil paints to a finished print. My theory, however, was that I would eventually gain enough skill to do just that—scan black and white negatives into the computer and then color them digitally. Like a lot of perfectly good theories, that one didn’t work. The reason it hasn’t worked, I think, is that when I work on a real physical print, I can see the whole print all the time. That is, when I’m coloring one corner I’m always aware of what’s happening in other areas of the picture, and so I always have a sense for the picture’s overall balance and tone and ambiance. On the computer, however, I need to continually zoom in and back off, working on little details without any easy reference to the rest of the image. And all the while I’m not even seeing the actual art, just the monitor’s version.

JK: Has working digitally changed your photography?

TO:  It sure has. In the past year, I’ve begun using color film. I shoot 2 1/4-square color negative film in my Holga. It’s got this single-element plastic lens with no correction for chromatic aberration, so you get wonderful rainbows around shiny objects and all sorts of interesting optical distortions.

JK: Have you enjoyed teaching?

TO: I find teaching really satisfying. I’ve taught in a great many venues, everything from one hour lectures, to weeklong workshops, to semester-length college courses, to graduate programs. All have their own unique pros and cons.  I find that every time I begin a new class, it’s really stimulating. It’s great to be around students—you can almost hear the wheels still turning in their heads. Once people leave school, it seems that they usually get a job, have a little circle of coworkers at work, and a circle of friends and neighbors around home—but without new input it becomes a steady-state universe, and there isn’t new information to mulch around. Most of my long-term friends have been people I initially met in classes, or more often, at workshops.

JK: Do you prefer one teaching format over another?

TO: Of the various teaching structures, I think workshops are the best way to go. Putting people together 18 hours a day for three days is a richer experience than putting them together for 3 hours a day for 18 weeks. Many of the really important things that you learn in any educational environment you don’t learn in class, but at meals, and late in the evening when you’re sitting around with a bunch of people and prints spread out all over the floor arguing about the future of the world. At the big workshop centers like Maine Photographic Workshops they run several workshops concurrently, and you share communal meals with all the people who are taking any of the workshops. Then each evening a different instructor from one or another of the workshops gives a lecture about their own life and work, and the richness and the intensity of the mix

JK: When you’re teaching courses do you spend more time teaching art or teaching craft?

TO: Workshops tend to be mostly about art. Even though they’re often field workshops, you manage to get into lots of art issues simply because you’re with these people for a good long block of time. With classes, the situation depends on the subject matter. I teach both traditional darkroom-based classes, and computer-based classes. The traditional class is more art oriented and the digital class more about craft. In the first three weeks of the traditional class I can show everyone how to make a decent exposure, develop the film, make an enlargement, dodge and burn, and mount the finished print. They may spend the rest of their lifetime finessing those issues, but after three weeks we’re out of the technological woods and into art and dealing with questions like “What is this picture all about? What are you trying to say with this photograph?” With digital classes, the entire first semester is taken up with issues of RAM caches, adjustment layers, key sequences, monitor calibration and soon. The moment we get into the first technical question we’re down that vortex and won’t get out of it for the rest of the afternoon. It’s a constant battle to keep everyone’s mind on why we make images, rather than just how they get made.

JK: Could you have a class on photography independent of the process, and stay on the art that way?

TO: There is a fundamental artistic difference between the way students practice traditional and digital photography. If you have a continuum that runs from traditional photography to painting, digital photography falls close to painting. In the traditional photographic process, you’ve got all these steps: choose the film and camera, figure out the exposure, compose the image, take the picture at the right moment, develop the film, print it, spot it, mount it. Well, suppose you’re really busy, and you’ve got to farm out part of the process. You might be willing to let someone else develop the film or mount the print. You might even allow a custom lab make the print (which is something most color photographers have always done). The very last thing you’d give up, however, is taking the picture. Photography has always been an intensely experiential art form. Simply put, to make a photograph, you have to be there. But in my digital class, that’s not the case at all. I have students who could care less about where the original negative came from. They’ll get an image from a family album. They’ll get it off the ‘Net. They’ll use a picture they took years ago. They’ll even make one up from scratch with Photoshop’s painting tools. And if they take new pictures with their camera, even then they’re not figuring that that’s the final picture—it’s just a piece of raw material to use in constructing a new picture. Among most of my digital students, the monitor is viewed like a blank canvas that they import images into, montaging them, distorting them, coloring them and generally transmuting them into entirely new realities.

JK: My approach to digital photography is that it’s just another output medium.

TO: That’s pretty much the way I use it. The montaging intrigues me, but I can feel the pendulum swinging back to where I was ten years ago when I’d take the picture in black and white and hand color it.

JK: But we’re different; most of your students don’t look at it that way at all.

TO: They don’t. It’s a different animal. They end up making photographs of experiences they’ve never had. You can start with a photo of yourself and a photo of Tahiti and put the two together, but it’s not the same as standing there on the beach with a self-timer. We live in an era of virtual reality, and there’s a loss there that they don’t entirely sense. But that’s just the way the world is—you get new tools and that opens up new possibilities, and some of the old possibilities sort of evaporate.  I worried that I would become a dinosaur when digital photography came to the fore. My photographs often seem to capture some little piece of one universe that inexplicably flew in and landed in some other disparate universe. I have a photograph of a real full-sized submarine that’s been imported into a city park. It looks wildly out of place, but there it was. I was so delighted when I found it, but now you could create that in Photoshop. I began to wonder who’s going to bother to go out and find these things, and are these things going to have the kind of import that they once had? I don’t know, but I’m after a few years, I’m once again happy with what I’m doing, which is putting the camera beside me in the car and following the path of the sun across the sky.

JK: Let’s talk about Art & Fear. The book is a squinty-eyed, hard-edged look at what it’s like to be an artist, but at the same time, it’s inspiring!

TO: It’s the tough love approach. We didn’t want this to be a pop psychology book. We wanted to cut through all the saccharine stuff and get down to what artists really deal with on a day to day basis.

JK: The collaboration is seamless: I look at a page, and I can’t tell whether you or David Bayles is writing.

TO: Neither can I! And in truth, every single sentence in the book probably includes ideas and phrases and words and even punctuation marks from each of us. In a literary sense that’s got to be a pretty rare occurrence, if only because—statistically speaking—collaborations rarely work. But here, there’s good chemistry. David and I have known each other forever. We’ve spent countless hours arguing about everything under the sun in the friendliest possible way. The book (and the title) were David’s idea. He invited me on board after he’d already been working on it for (I think) about a year. Then we then spent another eight years adding to and expanding upon and generally refining it.

JK: What’s been the response to the book?

TO: Among small-press books, Art & Fear is a runaway best-seller. It’s been in print nine years now and is in its fifteenth printing—that’s very heartening!

JK: It’s a marvelous book. It speaks to issues that anybody who has tried to make art for more than a couple of years has had to deal with.

TO: The stories in the book—and the ideas as well—are all pretty much drawn from our personal experience. We didn’t take aim on any particular audience—we simply tried to write a book that we would want to read if we stumbled upon it in a bookstore. Our theory was that if there were other people out there who thought about things the way we did, they’d respond to the book—but we didn’t have any idea whatsoever how many people that might be. The answer, it turns out, is a whole lot of people. We owe a great debt of gratitude to all of them.

By | 2016-12-28T19:07:18+00:00 December 28th, 2016|Comments Off on Ted Orland interview