Brian Taylor is a professor of Art and Design in the Photography program of California State University, San Jose. He is currently the Executive Director of The Center for Photographic Art, and was once President of the Board of the CPA. Brian is a photographer whose work has been extensively exhibited, published and collected. He is known for his extraordinary mastery of alternative processes. His work may be seen at www.briantaylorphotography.com. Jim Kasson interviewed Brian in Carmel.
JK: Let’s do a bio first.
BT: I was born in Tucson, Arizona, in 1954, and grew up in Scottsdale. I became interested in photography in high school, and knowing what I wanted to do with the rest of my life helped me accomplish a lot in my early years.
JK: You knew that it was going to be your profession, not just a hobby or a passing thing?
BT: In those days every mother wanted her son to grow up to be a doctor or a lawyer, not a photographer. Even though I had a real passion for photography, I didn’t think it was something that you could pursue as a livelihood. I went to Occidental College as a pre-med student, but during my first year, I realized that I genuinely wanted to dedicate myself to my photography, so I transferred to UC San Diego, which had a better photo program, and became a Visual Arts major.
JK: Did you start out thinking of photography as art?
BT: No. I never took any art classes in high school. My mom bought me my first camera, a Nikon FTn which I still own, in 1972, and I voraciously took pictures, mostly for utilitarian purposes.
JK: What changed your view of photography?
BT: When I was 17 or 18, I got a catalog from one of the UC extension programs announcing a workshop by a man I’d never heard of. For two weeks that summer I studied with Oliver Gagliani and fell in love with photography. I used to call myself a piranha of photography. I just couldn’t get enough. I’d eagerly volunteer to do Oliver’s long, Zone System film developments for two or three hours in total darkness in a basement room in a 150 year old hospital in Virginia City. I spent at least two weeks a year with Oliver for the next four or five years, loving every minute of it. When I first met him he was in his sixties, but he was always the first guy up in the morning, leaving before sunrise so he could get that early morning light. I was amazed to see somebody so committed to his art. After the workshops ended he and I would sometimes take off in my car and tour Nevada. I was fortunate to have people like Oliver as my role model. I benefit to this day even though our work has diverged. He was a classical, purist, straight photographer extraordinaire. Even though now I’m more known for my manipulation I’m absolutely beholden to Oliver for instilling in me a sense of self-discipline and pointing out that, “Excellent musicians must learn to play their instruments before they compose their own piece.”
JK: When you went to the workshop it was not only your exposure to a world of technique, it was an exposure to a different way of looking at photographs and photography?
BT: Absolutely right. Oliver was a friend and a student of Minor White. He opened up a whole world of mysticism to me. Paul Caponigro would stay with Oliver during these workshops and go into a mystical trance and play piano, and it was a great experience. I related to Oliver’s style, which harkened back to Stieglitz, with his concept of equivalents: what you took a picture of wasn’t always what the photograph was about. Stieglitz used clouds as equivalents of emotions and other content. Minor White later promoted the notion of transcendence or of taking a picture of something that’s banal, in Minor’s case, some eroded sandstone on the beach, and having it become a sculpture of a human being; or having frost crystals on his Rochester window sill become galaxies.
JK: Tellme about your formal photographic education.
BT: I finished college when I was 20 at UCSD and then I went to Stanford for a Masters in Education. I studied with the lovable Leo Holub, Stanford’s first photo teacher, and founder of their photo program. He had a great respect for Oliver and was a real kindred spirit. I had the great opportunity of being able to teach my first photo class there, during summer school. I was invited to be their first MFA in photography. It would have been tempting to stay on at Stanford for another degree, but I was fortunate enough to get accepted into the University of New Mexico, where I could study the history of photography with the venerable Beaumont Newhall. Van Deren Coke founded the program after being the director of the George Eastman House. When I went to New Mexico they were very avant-garde; Tom Barrow was scratching his negatives, which was unthinkable in traditional photography. The teacher I loved the most was Betty Hahn, who Coke brought in for a handmade aesthetic. Through her I learned the non-silver processes that are so dear to me now. She taught me gum bichromate and cyanotype printing. Betty redirected me from Oliver’s traditional Minor White, Zone System aesthetic towards a freer, more-liberated, anything-goes aesthetic.
JK: And that fit what you were trying to say?
BT: As much as I respected Oliver’s technique, it wasn’t my voice. I was younger than he, and sassier, and I needed a medium that was more liberating. I wanted to say different things.
JK: How did you like teaching at Stanford?
BT: I was hardly older than my students, so it took a few weeks for them to trust me. That was actually true through a lot of my early teaching career. I left Stanford when I was 22 and was hired at my current job at San Jose State in 1979 when I was 24.
JK: You’ve had one employer your entire professional life?
BT: I’ve worked there for more than half my life, and that worries me. I’m not sure anybody should do anything for half their life. But I was lucky enough to get a job right out of graduate school, and I’ve often faced walking into a classroom the first day being younger than many of the people, and having to prove myself for the first few weeks. Unfortunately, that’s no longer the case. Now I’ve been teaching at San Jose State for longer than most of my students have been alive.
JK: When did you decide you wanted to be a teacher? Was it by default; you wanted to be a photographer and there are two ways to make a living at it?
BT: Early on I realized there were two things I wanted to do. I wanted to be a photographer and I wanted to be a teacher. Through my observation of fine art photographers like Oliver, I realized that it was really hard to make a living off the sale of your prints. Especially in those days; now Cindy Sherman can, but in the 1970s…
JK: It’s still tough. For every Cindy Sherman there are a thousand other talented photographers who can’t make it just selling art.
BT: Exactly. But teaching wasn’t just a default. It didn’t seem like a second choice to me. So I got a degree in education and then I got my MFA, which is a terminal degree allowing me to teach at the college level. I’ve happily been a teacher ever since. I owe it to my students to be a good educator, but I’ve never looked to my teaching for a personal sense of achievement. I don’t give myself any pats on the back about teaching as an achievement, whereas I do look to my own photography as my measure of accomplishment. Individual students come and go, but the one constant in life is my own art. I feel fortunate to be a teacher because it’s so related to making art, even though there are artists who recommend choosing a less demanding, less academic job so that you conserve your energies.
JK: You teach many kinds of students.
BT: I teach workshops and I’m a university professor, and you get different kinds of students in each environment. The workshop people are there because they want to be there and they want to learn. People come together for the love of a common subject like water color painting or photography, and everybody is there to learn. Many university students take courses because they’re required to. Grading is unfortunate. Students should realize that no teacher likes grading. In the university there’s a hierarchy; the teacher is the authority and evaluates the students. That gets in the way.
JK: Tell me about your university students’ attitudes and goals and how they have changed over the years.
BT: Students have changed in the same way that young people have changed. I’ve been teaching since 1976, and I think young people were different then; there was a naïve respect for authority among young people in those days, and I don’t see that now. That could be a good thing, if young people are sharper and hipper these days and aren’t just mindlessly kowtowing to adults. Or, maybe they just think they know more. There’s been this whole movement with self-esteem…Bill Gates gave a commencement speech to a group of young people and said self-esteem is something that comes after you’ve accomplished something, not before. I’m running into a whole generation of people who come late to class or don’t pay attention during discussions. Some surf the Internet in the middle of a lecture. Even if they’re confronted there’s no sense of guilt because they have self-esteem and it was valuable for them to be bidding on eBay during my lecture. In my day I would have felt guilty, but many young people today live in an enviable dream world where they think, “I’m really worth it no matter what I do.”
JK: There was a study a year or two ago on the relationship of students’ mastery of various subjects to the students’ opinion of their own skill level. The students with the greatest mastery thought the least of their abilities, and the people with the poorest skills thought they were the best.
BT: The person who really knows their field also knows how limited their knowledge is.
JK: But teaching is satisfying to you…
BT: Immensely. I was fortunate to get a teaching job right out of school, and I so appreciate my students helping me to stay current in my own artwork. If I ever stopped being a photographer I’d feel compelled to resign as a teacher. I think teachers should practice what they preach, and I’ve never given my students an assignment that made them work half as hard as I make myself work.
JK: In the 27 years you’ve been at San Jose State you must have taught people who have gone on to become well-known artists. Have you followed their careers?
BT: Yes. I’ve had people at the graduate and undergraduate level who’ve given me more than I’ve given them and have made all my years of occasional trials and tribulations well worth it. Binh Danh is one of them. He was my undergrad and helped me teach some of my voodoo alternative processes courses. Kim Yasuda was a wonderful and extremely talented grad student and is now head of the art department at UC Santa Barbara. She’s internationally recognized as a public art and installation artist.
JK: Do you spend most of your time with graduate students or with undergrads?
BT: Most of my time is spent teaching undergrads, but it’s a joy to work with the 15 graduate students we have in photography. Most of them continue to develop their own great art, and go on to teaching positions at junior colleges, universities, and other schools in the West.
JK: How has the advent of digital changed the way you teach?
BT: Any photography teacher in the 21st century must realize that we owe it to our students to teach them digital photography.Students are still free to practice the Zone System and never purchase a digital camera, but the digital wave has already washed over us. We now incorporate digital imaging into our curriculum right down to the beginning photography level.
JK: Have you had to scramble to keep up?
BT: Oh yeah. This might be the first time in the history of higher education where the upcoming generation knows more about the medium than the 40- or 50-year-old teachers who’ve been experts up till that point. But the relevancy that photo teachers will always have is that even if the equipment changes, the issues of creativity and quality still remain the same. Issues of successful communication, composition and content always remain challenges.
JK: I always found that the hardest thing in photography was figuring out what I wanted to do. If I could figure out exactly what I wanted the print to look like, I could pretty much make it look that way.
BT: Yeah, absolutely right. Getting the print to look the way you want it to look and the content or meaning of the imagery is the creative part; that remains constant across all different technologies.
JK: Does digital make the teaching more interactive?
BT: Yes, one of the benefits of digital photography is that it allows for a much more immediate turnover of examples. In the old days, beginning photo students would go out with their film cameras and the teachers would give them an assignment: say, demonstrate the effect of various shutter speeds. You’d give the students a couple of days to do that, then they’d come back. Then you’d have to spend a week teaching them how to develop film, and another week teaching them how to make a contact sheet and print before they can even see their mediocre first attempts at stopping motion. Now we’ll go downstairs in class with a digital camera, explore shutter speeds, go back to class, hook up the camera to a computer, and view them within 20 minutes. Or we’ll do it in real time. We’ll hook up a camera to a computer that’s being projected and we’ll take pictures right there and watch them immediately. Digital photography has benefited photo education by making the turnaround time much quicker.
JK: What are the drawbacks of digital?
BT: My distinction between the two media is what it feels like along the way making the print. I’ve spent my years standing over a sink under yellow safelights moving pieces of paper from one tray to another putting my hands in wet potions. The other way of doing it is sitting at a monitor. I’ve taken Photoshop classes, where I’m sitting in a well-lit room next to twelve other people and we’re all staring at monitors moving colored lights around by moving a mouse. I asked myself, “Is this how I like to make art?” and it’s not. Digital certainly appears to have benefits over traditional photography; traditional photography is more laborious, having to develop film, having to move pieces of paper from one tray to another. If you fail in traditional photography it’s more painful than failing in digital, where you just hit Control-Z and start over.
JK: I remember the great sinking feeling that I sometimes had after I’d worked all day on something and then at the end of the day I realized that it’s just not going to work.
BT: There are people practicing digital photography who spend equivalent hours and don’t come up with what they’re looking for.
JK: But in those cases when it doesn’t work, it’s not working on a conceptual level. With digital, you know it is working on a technical level, because you can see what’s happening each step of the way. In the chemical world you could have a good concept that you just can’t make happen. You’d figure that out sooner with digital.
BT: Perhaps the medium we should envy the most is drawing, where the worst technical disaster that can happen is the pencil lead breaking!
JK: One of the things I always hated about working in a darkroom was the anti-social aspect of it. However, viewed from a different perspective you could say the fact that you have to be in there alone and working for long periods of time forces you to focus on what you’re doing.
BT: I personally like more isolation and more concentration. Here’s another analogy that’s relevant in my life. I’ve recently become very interested in poetry. I’m writing poetry, and sometimes using my photographs to illustrate it. I’ve discovered that you can only write your best poetry when you’re able to hear what you’ve written more clearly than anything else that you’ve heard that day. You have to completely immerse yourself in the lines in order to make a choice between almost identical words. In order to write good poetry you have to go in very deep. Although I sound like a Luddite, I am the first to agree that darkrooms are disappearing almost as fast as photo paper [Laughs].
JK: Let’s talk about your photography. When we were talking about your time in New Mexico being exposed to alternative processes, you said that the techniques resonated with what you were trying to say.
BT: Betty Hahn was such an influence on me. She went to school with Jerry Uelsmann, and they both had the benefit of studying under probably the greatest teacher in those days, Henry Holmes Smith. Smith always urged his students to explore and take chances, and Betty communicated that same kind of courage to me. Through her I became interested in processes that are very much handmade; non-silver processes where you actually have to mix up your own light-sensitive potions and brush them onto water color paper. They aren’t machine created, so they aren’t machine perfect. I believe that a work of art made by hand contains an aura. I’m not post-modern; I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that a handmade work of art contains the touch of the human hand that made the art. My aesthetic has changed through the years, but my interest in human touch, in signs of a human maker has remained. I like art that has imperfections and texture and that has led me to my current interest in handmade books.
JK: Tell me about what you were trying to say with your photography and how it has changed through the years.
BT: My aesthetic has changed. In my younger days I was much more critical of society. I did a series called Dante Today. That series was a dark social commentary. It was about the things we overlook and blindly accept in our daily lives, and how surreal our daily experiences often are.
JK: I was looking at your website this morning. I really like Fear of Flying.
BT: Yeah, that is spooky. It was made in 1988, pre-9/11, and I can hardly bear to look at it now. It’s odd how current events can change the meaning of an image. The idea of getting in a big metal object like an airplane that weighs tons and tons and we expect it to lift off the ground and fly without giving it a thought. Fear of Flying was all about the stewardess being in a completely different place than the reality of being a worker on an airplane. You can see she’s daydreaming. That series was an attempt to do the impossible in visual art, and that is to show what is inside somebody’s head.
JK: At least you can get the viewer to engage the photograph on that level. You don’t know how the viewer’s thoughts relate to her thoughts, but at least you’ve got an image that gets the viewer thinking. I didn’t pick up on the dark side of the image; I laughed when I saw it.
BT: There are twenty or more images in that series and the viewer sees more what they bring to the image than where I try to take them.
JK: Fear of Flying isn’t supposed to be humorous, but Christina’s New World is, right?
JK: Humor is rare in photography.
BT: There’s a reason for that. If you dare to deal with humor in art you are performing without a net. If you try and do something funny and it fails, you fall all the way to the ground. It’s safer to make art about heavy issues that everybody instantly takes seriously, like war and death, than it is to add humor to art where you could easily fail. You see this in students all the time. They always take on death, bleakness, alienation, because everybody will take them seriously. It’s dangerous to mess around with humor even though laughter is as valid a human emotion as sorrow.
JK: Your later work doesn’t have that uncomfortable bite that characterizes the work from the 80s.
BT: Before I was a parent I was more sassy and critical of society; I made pretty dark pictures. When I was in graduate school I shared a darkroom with Joel-Peter Witkin, and he was influential. Even Oliver’s work is dark, and so I have had a tendency towards darkness. That all changed when I became a parent. I quote the old saying, “There are those who would rather curse the darkness than strike a single match.” There are plenty of people running around who are solely critical. Since parenthood I’ve decided not to contribute more darkness to the world. There’s something else going on; being a parent forces you to view the world from the worst possible scenario. You’re always on the look out. When you weren’t a parent you’d come up to a busy street and all you had to worry about was getting your own skin safely across. If you have a two-year old and you approach a busy street you’re on red alert. Parenthood made me so aware of the dangers of the world that I no longer needed to make them visible.
JK: The period where you started making books coincided with this change of aesthetic.
BT: I love handmade books because of the freedom it gives me. The book format is something I came to because it allowed me to include little bits of text, almost like haiku poems. If you look at some of my books on the website you’ll see little white torn bits of paper in the gutter of books as though pages have been torn out, leaving random words. But the words are carefully placed. I’m trying to use the fewest number of words possible. The book format also allows me to juxtapose one image against another. I love the idea of being able to show two pictures at the same time, which creates another context. It allows me to make comments or take people places that a single image can’t.
JK: Tell me how you got to the recent landscapes.
BT: I have two wild sons, and my daily life is so full of stimulation that I began to seek out peace and tranquility, which led me to take walks by myself. Those landscapes are my attempts through handmade non-silver processes, to capture the feeling of peace and tranquility that I feel in these places.
JK: It’s a different conception of the landscape than Adams’. It’s not the grand landscape. It’s the intimate, personal, non-dramatic landscape…
BT: …which is more common than when the clouds part and the sun shines on the lone horse for Ansel. The ordinary moments of magic or peace are certainly more frequent than when the setting sun lights up the gravestones, and the moon rises over Hernandez, New Mexico.
JK: You’re not doing it just because it’s convenient.
BT: Yeah. I really like that series. I haven’t had much commercial success with it. Maybe it’s just because they’re landscapes and that subject already has a long, full history of excellence, or maybe they’re not as good as I think they are.
JK: They’re very quiet. If you’re walking around in a gallery, they’re not going to reach out and beat you over the head. However, I don’t think anybody would dispute that the objects are beautiful.
BT: Thanks. Making beautiful objects is important to me, which might be an old-fashioned aesthetic now that we’re into a world where many artists don’t even make their own art. Jeff Koons and many famous people never even touch their art, but for me it is very important that I make a beautiful object.
JK: Are you continuing to pursue the landscape?
BT: No. I think I said what I needed to say and adding more forests to the series wouldn’t be progress.
JK: What is your subject matter now?
BT: It’s right in front of my face: my family. There’s a Zen notion that if something is painful you can try running away from it, but maybe you should turn and face it. I don’t sound like a very good family man right now when I call my family painful, but my home is no sanctuary, it is very noisy. The landscapes were my running away from the chaos. In my new work I’m facing it and finding humor and looking for universalities that would be of interest to other people. I want this work to be of interest to people who don’t have kids; that’s a big challenge. Sally Mann and Nicholas Nixon have shown us that you can take pictures of your immediate family with such perception and skill that they will be interesting to other people. But every household in America is filled with family photo albums that nobody outside the family wants to see. You have to edit yourself very tightly. Hemingway said a good writer must have an excellent crap detector. Visual artists should too.
JK: In the family pictures you’re drawing on the work. That’s not entirely new; there’s an older series of powerful places that were extensively worked over.
BT: The difference is that in the older work the marks were in concert with the imagery. Now the marks are unrestricted by the imagery. In my earlier series, Places of Magic, I was coloring inside the lines, and now my marks are going outside the lines.
JK: It seems like you’re getting less inhibited as you age.
BT: I’m a believer that people are either born tight or born loose. I was born super tight; that’s why I took so readily to Gagliani and the Zone System. That’s as tight as photography gets. I’ve spent my whole life trying to loosen up. Holly Roberts is so loose; I adore her courage. I’m trying to become freer in my art and to give up any self-imposed restrictions: to draw on my work, to write on my work, all the while keeping quality in mind. All I want is absolute freedom, is that asking for too much?