Norman Mauskopf Interview

Roughly four years ago I was able to partially make the leap to New Mexico. I’d been living in Southern California for nearly fifteen years but my insides were burning for what Gretel Ehrlich refers to as “The Solace of Open Spaces.” During my youth I’d spent many parts of many years on a Wyoming cattle ranch, owned by my father, and the hook of the high, wide and dry had never left my bones. New Mexico isn’t Wyoming, but in some ways I find it even more magical, and Santa Fe is also home to one of the most significant and thriving photography communities in the entire United States.

One of the best things about being in Santa Fe is the people I’ve met, not to mention all the fellow photographers who call the state home. I’m so very fortunate to be able to call these people friends. One person I’ve gotten to know is Norman Mauskopf. When you live in Santa Fe you actually run into people. Shortly after moving to Santa Fe I began to run into Norman pretty much all the time. I’d heard about him, his work, and his incredible teaching reputation but had never really been able to spend any time with him. Well, now I have, and I have to say I think I’m not only a better photographer because of meeting Norman, but at the risk of sounding too cheesy, I think I’m probably a better person. Norman might cringe at this, but I’ll explain.

A few months ago, with pen and paper, I ventured to Norman’s home and asked him a few questions about life, history and of course, photography. I wanted to share with you his answers and his outlook. One of the things that I really admire about Norman is the speed at which he moves. He isn’t caught up in the trappings of the modern world, and I don’t mean he isn’t literate on these things, he simply picks and chooses what matters.(His description of Twitter was an instant classic.) Many would consider him old school, at least in terms of how he works, and that might be accurate, but if you spend any time with him you realize he has a vast knowledge of all things photographic. It is impossible NOT to learn while being around him. I’m hoping if I spend enough time with him, then one day perhaps, his knowledge will rub off on me.

Norman Mauskopf Born 1949, in New York, 61 years old , grew up in DC

AT WHAT AGE DID YOU BEGIN SHOOTING SERIOUSLY? I got a camera for college graduation when I was 21 or 22, a Yashica TL electro X, 35mm, and I was hooked from the minute I picked it up. I was an economics major in college and then worked at the Brookings Institution and the Federal Reserve Board in Washington for eight years. In 1978 I went to Art Center in Pasadena, California and studied photography for an intense two-years. I became a studio lighting guy and a no-job-is-too-small photographer. I shot car stereos, portraits, real estate brochures, anything. I felt good because I never had to get a day job. But I also knew that I wanted to shoot black and white photo essays, and I could pay for them with the earnings from the commercial photography I did.

DID YOU HAVE A GOAL, A VISION FOR THE FUTURE? I liked working in sequences. The corporate work I got was from graphic designers and they hired me to take sequences, not just one image. All I knew was that I wanted to take pictures and have a book.

WHAT DID YOUR PARENTS THINK OF YOU BEING A PHOTOGRAPHER? Well, they never stood in my way. They weren’t thrilled but as long as I was happy and was making a living they were okay with it. My father didn’t really get it, and each time I started a new book project he would say, “Oh no! Another one?”

WHO WAS INFLUENING YOU AT THAT TIME? Duane Michals narratives had a huge impact on me. And The Americans by Robert Frank, which was either the first or second photo book I bought. I also liked people like W. Eugene Smith and Joel Meyerowitz whose Cape Light series inspired me to do a series of twilight 4×5 images around Los Angeles. And of course Cartier-Bresson and Mary Ellen Mark were very influential as well. I was also living in DC, so being a National Geographic photographer was a goal. Now I appreciate photography that is not anything like what I do; for example the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto who also had gone to Art Center a couple of years ahead of me.

WHEN SOMEONE ASKS YOU WHAT YOU DO FOR A LIVING WHAT DO YOU TELL THEM? Oh boy. (Smiles) Black and white photographer of people and how they live. I hesitate to go into details, and I even hesitate explaining what I do to other professionals. I’m a photojournalist in the true sense of the word; creating a photographic journal of a place and its people. I also fall back on my books, using them to explain the projects and how I work.

I fit comfortably into a classic tradition. I’m not going to win a MacArthur Fellowship for taking photography in a new direction but I feel good about getting some recognition after coming to the party late, in my early-30’s.

YOU WORK IN BOOK FORM: IS THAT YOUR GOAL? The photo book was a conscious decision from the beginning. I was looking to do a complete body of work. When I found the world of rodeo I thought it was a great opportunity. Jack Woody had started Twelvetrees Press and was based in Altadena, California. At that time (1983) I was a groupie at G. Ray Hawkins Gallery in Los Angeles, I got to know photographers like Gary Winogrand, Max Yavno, Herb Ritts. David Fahey was working for G. Ray. I saw beautiful books at G.Ray’s that Jack had done with Bruce Weber, Todd Webb and others. So I contacted Jack and he agreed to look at the work. I had only about twelve images but he said he wanted to see more and that it was all it took, I was off and running. I worked on it for two years and Rodeo was published in 1985. Two months later I took it to the press office at Santa Anita Racetrack and they gave me a press pass, said be careful and warned me that these horses were high strung and fragile, not like the quarter horses in the rodeo. I met a trainer named Eddie Gregson, who had been friends with Robert Frank, and Eddie introduced me to his crew and let me hang around his stable. They became my horse racing family.

YOU HAVE AN UPCOMING BOOK, TELL US ABOUT IT It’s about the Hispanic community in New Mexico and titled “Descendants.” Twin Palms is the publisher. It’ll have approximately 70 pictures in a 7×12 horizontal format and Jimmy Santiago Baca wrote a cool poem for it. We’re planning a show and book signing at Verve Gallery in Santa Fe for January, 2011.

HOW DO YOU DECIDE ON THESE PROJECTS? Coincidence. Both Rodeo and Dark Horses came about because I happened to go to a rodeo and then a racetrack and discovered new cultures that I was unfamiliar with. With the Mississippi project there was a re-release of Robert Johnson’s famous blues songs around 1991, so I thought it would be a great time to go to Mississippi and do something on the blues. It eventually expanded into a book about black culture in the Mississippi Delta. The New Mexico book came about because I saw some pictures that my workshop students had done that knocked me out. So I thought, you know I’ve been here for ten years, I should really go look into this. I’ve been working on it for over five years.

CAN YOU FEEL AN IMAGE WHEN IT HAPPENS? You have to be ahead of the image, especially shooting with the Leica because of the manual controls. Also, when I see a subject I immediately look for a second or third element, something that can reinforce or resonate with the subject. It’s improvisation and sometimes you just don’t capture it. When I see something there is a real rush but I also realize I am not in total control. And with film you don’t REALLY know until you see the negative and so you keep replaying the scene over and over. I find that the delay in seeing your image helps build your photographic intuition. You replay how things FELT and what you did in response. It’s a kind of organic process that helps me connect with light, shutter speed, focus and the moment. This process is very important and I assume there’s a way to do it with digital. A good picture is a good picture regardless if it’s film or digital.

DO YOU KNOW WHEN YOU HAVE IT, FOR THE MOST PART OR ARE THERE SURPRISES? There are a lot of surprises. I can tell after all these years that maybe I got close and didn’t get it, or I got close and maybe got the shot — maybe.

WE TALK A LITTLE OF MODERN AUTOMATED CAMERAS AND HOW THEY EFFECT THE USER. Photographers relinquishing making photographic decisions started before digital; with aperture and shutter priority features, and to some extent autofocus cameras. I’m a manual, Leica photographer so I’m making those decisions and choosing the settings.

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE MODERN PHOTOGRAPHY BUSINESS WORLD? I’m not in it. I did it for 30-plus years but I haven’t had an assignment in almost 10 years.

DO YOU WANT ASSIGNMENTS? No. I’m now an educator spending much of my time teaching. I’ve taught at the Maine and Santa Fe workshops for ten years, and the Santa Fe Community College, and now I’ve also begun to teach my own classes. I produced images for 40-plus years and still do, but now I need to move into the museum and collector world. I enjoy being local; being exhibited locally and being a part of the Santa Fe community.

EXPLAIN YOUR PROCESS Leica, Tri-x, D-76, Ilford Warm Tone Fiber (Sitting on his desk are 300, 4×6, analog work prints, I explain that most people would find that pure insanity to make work prints that way, in the age of scanning, ftp, cheap prints, digital cameras, etc.)


IT IS ALSO RUMORED YOU LOVE PROCESSING FILM. Yes, I love processing film, it is just a part of this process. This process, and taking the time to do it, gives you the time to really THINK about the project. You are forced to work slow, forced to think about what you are doing, and about the project; analyze where you want it to go. Working fast can be good at times, not second guessing, but it is all part of the same thing. You have to stare at an image in the developer for four or five minutes in a tray. What happens after you see this image is really what is important. Like I said before, a good image is a good image regardless of film or digital, but I have to say, there is something to be said about NOT being able to see the image while you are shooting. With digital you still have to somehow make the process organic. Look, when they take away my materials, I’ll use digital and the computer.

YOU DID A PROJECT, YEARS BACK, WHICH I THOUGHT I WAS A DEPARTURE FOR YOU, THE PROSTITUTE PROJECT. WHY WAS IT DIFFERENT? The brothel project, well I was invited to go and do that series. The big difference with this project was that it was not my idea. I was invited. I had done my rodeo book and one of the cowboys showed it to a brothel owner. They were a forward thinking brothel family. However I had to have permission from anyone and everyone before I could photograph. I also interviewed people, and I’m really proud of the interviews I did. Bellocq was my model and Mary Ellen Mark as well; her Faulkland Road project. I ended up being a house guest. I shot 35mm and 2 ¼, mostly formal portraits. THIS PROJECT WAS DONE IN NEVADA AND NORMAN WAS INVITED TO STAY WHERE HE WANTED IN A GROUP OF THREE BROTHELS. I was working in 10×10 rooms with one window. I brought lights to shoot at night, and remember, I was a trained, studio lighting guy from my time at Art Center. It was mostly lockdown on a tripod, 50mm.

I NOTICE YOU DON’T EDITION YOUR PRINTS No, editioning is contrary to the nature of photography. Photography is about multiples.

DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR YOUNG PHOTOGRAPHERS? Photograph what appeals to you and not what you think will make you money. Do whatever fits in with who you are? Beg, borrow or steal the money and do it. A lot of my early stories were financed on credit cards.

WHAT IS THE BEST PART OF IT ALL? Spotting prints. (Laughs) Just kidding. The best part is being out in the world and taking pictures. The best part of the technical process for me is processing the film. The timer is going around and I’m making decisions: should I give the film a little bit more time? When and how much to agitate? When should I start pouring out the developer? How did I hold the meter when I was shooting? What lens was I using? All of this is about the UNKNOWN!

No, I’m right there, but I’m always somewhat out of control. I like this part. Mentally, I’m interacting with what is front of me, the technical aspects and the people combining in a fluid situation. Foreground, background, psychology, what I think I’m getting, how far can I push them, am I doing the right thing, is there something better, am I missing something, etc.

IS IT MORE DIFFICULT TO WORK TODAY THAN BEFORE? Not really. I work in closed communities, so after I penetrate the community, I’m in. I gain access. Photographers now point to things like Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, etc and say that has created a sense of paranoia among people. I haven’t noticed. The Leica helps me. I work with a Leica and look like a tourist. And now that I’m older my age helps. I’m not perceived as a threat.

ARE YOU STILL LEARNING? Technically, it’s a constant battle; the same issues with the process, they don’t go away. I think I am more open to being LESS in control and more open to taking chances. You have to give yourself over to the fact you can’t be in total control in most situations and then a comfortable feeling comes over you. Then you just go with it.

WHAT ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS ABOUT BEING A PHOTOGRAPHER? The best thing is the access you get to interact with the world. Photographers are pointers. We point and say, “Look at that.” I want you to experience the world from my point of view. I think we as photographers have something to say about the world. END INTERVIEW

DM Over the past fifteen or so years I’ve been working on long-term projects, some of which failed miserably, others survived and live today. For most of this time I never really felt the need to show anyone the work. I’m not entirely sure why this is, but I think it mostly stems from the idea that the reason I do documentary work is because I love the process of actually being in the field and making pictures. I’ve tried to get better over the years, even though I’m not really sure what that means, and I’ve tried to find a way to be more connected to the projects I was working on. I also began, years ago, to question my own motivations as to what stories I was working on and why. Spending time with Norman, and watching him print in the darkroom, has helped me with my direction and forced me to consider my actions at an ever deeper level. I’ve not yet taken a class with Norman, but it’s on my list. I wish all young photographers, and some old ones, could spend time with someone like Norman. I think the key to this little story is the work itself. The work takes time, and critical thought, something seemingly in short supply these days. I’m hoping my time spent with Norman has only just begun. Viva New Mexico.

INTERVIEW: John Bilderback

John, pre-shoot on Oahu’s North Shore.


I was first introduced to the world of surf photography, years ago, when I worked for Eastman Kodak. I was living in Southern California and was hired by Kodak to be the liaison for photographers in my region. After having moderate success, I convinced Kodak to send me to Oahu for the Pipeline Masters surfing event. Not only did this event attract surfers from around the globe, it also attracted surfing photographers from around the globe. Photographers came from France, Australia, Japan, England, Indonesia, New Zealand, Portugal, South Africa and all over the United States mainland. Digital had yet to arrive and film was the name of the game.

Looking back on those first few years I didn’t realize just how good we had it. There was a small town atmosphere to the North Shore and to the gaggle of photographers that lived there during the winter months. I wasn’t a part of this small community, just an interloper that came once a year with the new wares from Kodak. Leaving California, and the corporate bubble, and landing on the North Shore was like leaving this world and arriving in an alien land. Oahu is the most remote landmass on Earth and the surfing culture personified a modern, nomadic tribe filled with energy from competition, territorial attitude, cultural clashes, history and tension derived from those attempting to look deeper into the limits of their skill and courage.

After a successful first trip I was to make many more, and over the years I got to know a few of the photographers fairly well, some of whom I’m still friends with today.

One of those photographers was a lanky New Jersey born photographer named John Bilderback.

A few months ago I had the good fortune of having a shoot on Oahu, and my wife and I decided to stay a few extra days to relax and check in with some old friends. I’d mentioned to John a few months earlier about potentially being on the island and thought it might be a good time to fire up an interview or photo-shoot. Oddly enough he agreed. He also agreed to let me follow him on an afternoon shoot so that I could make a few pictures to go along with this interview.
So much has changed since we first met, but as you will read, John is still making pictures, and films, and has adapted to new technology, new subject matter and new clients.

Before we go any further there is something you should know. In all my years of being around photography I don’t think I’ve encountered a group of photographers more misunderstood than surfing photographers. Their industry, rife with cliche, isn’t viewed in the same way of mainstream sports and we all have bad surfing movies and characters in our mind. Don’t let this nonsense fool you. There are a handful of people in the entire world who can do this work at this level. Standing on the beach is one thing, swimming and shooting in monster waves is a risk each and every time. It’s humbling as a photographer to look at work and realize there is no way you could match it. I feel this way when I see John’s work. Plus, he’s just a cool, humble guy and that is a great combo. This interview and selection of images is just a TINY window into his world.

Trying to predict the oncoming storm.

-A guy from New Jersey shooting surfing? How did that happen?

I grew up in a house on the beach, in a little fishing town called Barnegat Light. We lived within earshot of the lighthouse’s foghorn, and right on the inlet to Barnegat Bay. Everyone was either a fisherman or a tourist. I came from a family of fisherman, but my friends and I preferred to hang out with the tourist girls. I took up surfing around 1972 and I couldn’t even carry my own surfboard. When I was seventeen, my father died, and the only way I could react was to try to fill my life with as much adventure and surfing as I could possibly fit in. I went from an all boys prep school in New Jersey, to the University of California at San Diego, where I could surf Black’s Beach every day and surf and camp in Baja on the weekends. My good friend Rob Gilley, another surfer whom I met at prep school, also went to UCSD and we began taking surfing pictures together. We shared the costs of the equipment and learned from each other, and from our numerous mistakes. Before too long we began getting photos published. Eventually we both went on to become senior photographers for SURFER Magazine.

In front of the monster, shark diving.

-When did you land on the North Shore?

In 1988 while working for the legendary photographer/photo editor Larry ‘Flame’ Moore at SURFING Magazine, I was offered a one way ticket to Hawaii and a raise. It took some consideration, maybe thirty seconds, and I was off to face the biggest surf in the world. I took everything I had and put it in a box.

-You had an assisting career as well correct?

During my college years I worked for most of San Diego’s best commercial photographers. Dean Collins, Jim Coit, Aaron Chang, and many others. It was an awesome education that really added to what they taught me in school and showed what a real photographer’s job was like. Dean is a genius, but from him I learned that technique was not the only thing you needed. Jim is also a genius, he has a way with people, any people, in any situation. He taught me about the things you need to be able to do that had nothing to do with cameras. Aaron took me under his wing when it was time to swim in the big surf, he taught me how to manage hairy situations.

-For me, photography was about the need to record. Why do you think photography became your life, not just a hobby?

The beautiful scenes that you are a part of when you are in the water motivated me most. I’d swim with the waves and the dolphins and surfers at dawn at Black’s Beach before heading off to sell cameras at Point Loma Camera and I’d have this buoyed, indestructible feeling. I could handle any little problem, because I”d already filled my tank with beauty, and awe and stoke. It seemed that I’d found a little secret energy source and I could share it somewhat if I brought back good enough images. It was a perfect blend of my loves, surfing and shooting.

Backlit kiteboarding.

-There is a big difference between enjoying the water and making it your life and career. What is it about this culture, sport, etc, that brought you to it? Can you see yourself ever doing something else?

I’ve always felt as surfers we’re blessed by trying to be in tune with the ocean and nature. You are, by necessity adapting to the conditions around you, and I’ve come to believe that a quest, especially one that takes you out of your comfort zone is a centering experience. When a ten foot set comes out of the horizon, there’s no one to help you; you face it entirely by yourself. Your attitude, your resolve, your fear, are all tightly wound up in who you are. And if you aren’t humble, alert, and thinking ahead, you get beaten. Lessons come from everywhere. When its really big and you’re going to get licked, you need to look inside for the confidence that is essential to staying calm and getting past the next few minutes safely. And when you succeed where your fear said you wouldn’t, nothing is better. After a few years of scaring the crap out of myself, I was hooked.

-I noticed early on there were a lot of folks shooting from the beach, but not nearly as many in the water. And on big days, even less in the water. It seems in the age of the 600mm and autofocus a lot of folks could shoot from the beach. What are your thoughts on this? And how did autofocus change your industry? How about digital?

We’ve seen technology come in waves. In the beginning of my career we were all shooting Kodachrome 64, manually focusing slow Century lenses, and we were lucky to get anything tack sharp. My photo editor used to advocate sitting on the side of the road practicing focusing on cars as they sped by. It wasn’t easy. Then we got auto focus lenses and nearly anyone who bought gear could stand behind a tripod and produce sharp images their first day. Digital photography has further relaxed the qualifications needed for shooting surfing. We used to spend hundreds of dollars a week on film and processing, or have a relationship with a magazine that paid that bill for us. As a result the magazines invested in us, and our future. Now anyone with a CF card, and a thumb is a surf photographer, and the mags get images for free. And that’s fine, there are some incredible shots being taken. But the dream of being able to survive making surf images is gone. The change has been to photography as a whole, not just in our industry. We photographers used to be like wizards. We mixed potions and worked under dark cloaks and in mysterious darkened rooms. Now cameras are literally everywhere. There are 1.3 cameras per person in the United States. There went the wizardry – and now we’re paid accordingly.

A lighting setup unlike any other…….

-When did you get comfortable shooting in big surf? What is your mindset when you go out on big days? Carrying a housing, etc.

I’m never ‘comfortable’ I don’t think. I’m always in a heightened state of awareness. Where’s the good spot? Where’s the wrong spot? When is that next massive closeout coming? Really, its problem solving, like most of photography. It varies from spot to spot and day to day, but you need to have a strategy that will keep you safe, while still allowing you to bring home something that’s worth maybe risking your life for in the first place. The shooting itself is a rush, yet the feeling of successfully getting back to the beach on a big day, potentially holding a box full of gems is so powerful, that it is also a reward unto itself. Its far more motivation than the small money involved. I think I never feel more alive than when I finish a day shooting in big surf.

-Any close calls over the years?

Yes, sure, tons. I’ve been run over by surfers, and landed on. I’ve literally been reduced to tears at Sunset Beach. “Mommy, I don’t want to be a surf photographer anymore!” Once, I barely squeaked over the back of a closeout wave at Waimea Bay and pretty much saw my life flashing before my eyes. There were a few seconds where I swore if I got to the beach I”d never do this shit again. I’ve seen broken backs, broken pelvises, broken femurs. I’ve seen huge sharks. I’ve seen boats go over the falls and sink, and I’ve watched bravery beyond anything I’ve ever seen on land. My inspiration I draw from the athletes; and it always keeps me at the waters edge wanting to swim out.

-Can you feel when you are about to get something great? When the ingredients are there for something beyond the normal? What does that feel like? (This goes back to something I have said about feeling a picture before you actually see it.)

I”m not sure I can. I can feel when the conditions are coming together, but I have so little control over anything, and the moment often goes by so fast, its impossible to be one hundred percent confident that I got it.
However, when someone takes off on a giant wave, and time slows down, and you are fighting your heart rate, you feel the potential energy right through you. Back in the film days when we’d leave the beach with just thirty six precious frames to shoot, we’d agonize over every shot we’d fire, and we’d have to be very picky. Now we blast through four hundred or more shots, covering everything that moves, and its different. We almost expect to bring home flawless images.

-When we first met you were, I think, only shooting surfing. Now you branched out into kite boarding. Was this serendipity or planned?

Living on the North Shore for over twenty years, I’ve seen the number of surfers in the water go off the charts. Even our ‘fringe’ spots are packed with surfers now. Getting stink-eye while surfing at the spot in front of your house gets old after a while. So one summer Darrick Doerner, a proper big wave legend, told me I should learn to windsurf. ‘If it’s good enough for Darrick and good enough for Laird Hamilton, it’s good enough for me’, I thought. And blam, my eyes were opened! I rode bigger waves faster, and further, without any of the crowds, or small-mindedness of the surf scene. I’ve had some of the best experiences of my since that moment, and I promised myself I’d always be open minded to other ideas. So when Dan Moore and a few of the early pioneers put big kites in the sky and got dragged downwind, it looked funny, but I couldn’t write it off. Now kitesurfers are matching, and in some ways even surpassing, what a surfer can do on a wave. And with the situation we’re in globally, wind power is something we should all be paying attention to. It has to be part of the solution.

Modern kiteboarding, a long way from where it began.

-How does your job changed from shooting surfing to shooting kite boarding?

Largely it hasn’t. I use basically the same equipment and skill set. I work closely with the athletes, and swim cameras into waves. The main challenge is that now I have to keep my port clear in twenty knots of wind.

-I see you not only incorporated motion, or video, into your work, but you also launched a real feature film project. Tell us about that.

Fundamentally, I find motion and sound to be so much fun to work with. In a photo you have to have anything two things you want to talk about in relative proximity. In a film, you can cut from one to another, and they can be separate in time as well as in space. Artistically the possibilities are incredible. I’m still in diapers in that field, but I’ve just finished my second film called Big Windy, which chronicles some of the frontiers of kitesurfing. Wind and alternative energies have to be part of saving the planet, and as people who get flung around by it we’re very familiar with its power. Over eighteen months of filming in Polynesia, Micronesia and Indonesia, we met a family on an atoll with a pet shark, we taught kids who’d never seen white people to fly, and enjoyed ourselves like we were surfers in the 1940’s, when everyone was still nice to each other, the frontiers were still expanding, and the sport was brand new.

-I would assume being a Canon guy you are using the 5D to make your films?

5D’s and 7D’s. Having a huge sensor, all my great lenses available, and the small form factor of these cameras, I can live with or work around all of their drawbacks. (Can I please get some lower ISO speeds though please?) We’ve just worked out a loupe-viewfinder solution for the Essex housings and I’m super excited about starting the next project with them.

Keeping the gear dry as rain invades our shoot.

-Is filmmaking going to be a significant part of your future?

(Isn’t it going to be part of everyone’s? Now some phones shoot and edit HD video, and can post it right away to the internet. Everyone is going to be an imager to some degree.)
I’ll be compelled to express myself always. What form it takes is fluid. Tomorrow, my wife Alexis and I are off to shoot a Kite Camp for twelve year old kids in Cape Hatteras, then a pro kite competition in the Gorge, and then its a month of filming wave riding in Indonesia for Oxbow. I guess that is a significant part of my future!

-There is much talk of the print world going away and the future being almost entirely online content. Do you agree? How do you feel about this? And how does being based in Hawaii have any effect on your feeling?

As a resident of an isolated island, the internet is the greatest thing in the world. It removes the thousands of miles of ocean, and makes things possible that required living in metropolitan hub before today. We can live detached, and still be as connected as we need to be. That said, I think there will always be a separate place for beautiful printed photography and art. There’s nothing like a great print on good stock, in good light. Many things though, are better delivered on the internet. News, especially today, changes far too rapidly for print media to keep up. And a magazine is no way to show video. And I believe trees don’t need to be cut down so I can check the stock market. But a glossy high quality image is something made to savor, not be dosed with, as if it were information. And there’s a permanence and robustness that also have value, so I don’t think the only things we’ll appreciate will be on a monitor. It defines what we believe is art, by the place we give it to occupy. And the internet is just another place.

-Where do you get your inspiration? What photographers do you look up to? Admire?

For my work, I get my inspiration mostly from the athletes. The things they do, their ability, and the endless variety of conditions you have to handle. A tennis player knows what the court will look like when he or she wakes up in the morning. A surfer has to be ready to face anything. Every day at the office is different. As for photographers, I look up to people outside my field, doing things I find difficult. Lori Adamski-Peek is a great example. She was a sports shooter turned people shooter and her work is amazing. I really admire her style.

-What is your dream shoot you haven’t yet been able to do? If you can share it?¶..

I’ve been working with a helicopter pilot friend for about three years getting ready for the next truly giant day of days. I was in a rented helicopter on January 28th 1998, the biggest day I’ve ever seen, and tow surfing was in its infancy. I could only afford to pay for about two hours in the air, and when the swell is that big, the sets only come every half an hour or so, so I only got to shoot a few sets. The jet-skis were under-powered back then and only a few people really had the skills to challenge it. It was an awesome sight that I couldn’t make the most of. Now there are super-charged skis, highly trained and motivated professional hell-men, and I have a friend who is gonna put me above the action till my arms give out. I want another day like that.

-How many times have you been told by a tourist that you have “The best job in the world?”

It does happen.

To see more of John’s work including his film “Big Windy” have a look at his site.


Austin Texas, 1990.

I was a second-year photojournalism student at The University of Texas.

Shopping for books, I found myself not in the textbook section of the store, but instead in the photography book section. All the usual suspects were there. The nature books, the celebrity books, travel books filled with stock, but then suddenly something caught my eye.
Shoving aside the enormous volumes, I found myself holding a book titled “Afghanistan 1980-1990,” by a photographer named Ed Grazda. Softbound, cover font in green, black and white lead photo, with the words “Der Alltag,” across the bottom.
Thumbing through the first few pages my heart began to race and I found my mind thousands of miles away, in the Hindu Kush and alongside the person who made the photos. I was hooked.

Afghanistan had been a subject of my fascination since the Soviet invasion, but I had never really found, or read, or discovered anything that took me to this foreign place. Until I found this book.

I purchased the book, took it to my tiny apartment and spent far too many hours pouring over the images. The book design was simple, black and white images accompanied by English text on one page, and the same text in German on the facing page. The book was exotic. The images, the foreign language, and most importantly, the idea that this man, who I knew by then was American, had gone to Afghanistan and lived amongst the war, the tragedy and the tribes to make these images. The pictures were not of war, which is what had really become associated with Afghanistan, but rather the images were about life. Daily life, tea houses, street scenes, and secret trips into the countryside with the mujahideen. Wide angle to normal lenses, black borders.

In some ways I found the book difficult to look at because for me it was evidence of what was possible, and of what I thought MY path would be. The book was a reminder, a haunting reminder that there were photographers out there doing it, devoting their lives to make pictures that were important to them.

Ed signing books in his New York apartment.

New York City, 2009

I need to find Ed Grazda.

Much time had passed since my days in Austin. I still own Grazda’s first book, and knew now there was a follow up book, “Afghanistan Diary 1992-2000,” which chronicled the following ten-year time frame in the life of Afghanistan. And there was also a book regarding the Masjid in New York. Doing what we do today when we try to find something or someone, I Googled Ed, and low and behold there he was. An email address. I wrote to Ed, he wrote back, and a few short days later I was sitting in his apartment with a tentative list of questions and slightly sweaty hands. Yes, I was nervous, but perhaps not for the reason you think. Earlier in the day I had been on a panel at the Javits Center, in front of a crowd of people, and my heart never went a single beat above resting, but sitting with Ed, looking around his apartment, which was filled with small stories of his life, I came to a realization. Interviewing someone like Ed isn’t easy. It isn’t easy because Ed has done a lot of important work, and no matter how many questions I asked, I was probably only going to scratch the surface.

A rug portrait portraying Ahmad Shah Massoud.

I found myself quietly thinking, “Maybe I’m not really qualified to do this?” but the door was closed. I was inside and there was no turning back. I was able to spend about an hour with Ed, and the result is the following interview. He was also nice enough to allow me to make a few images, which I think help to set the scene.

When I read this interview I realize I have many, many more questions for Ed, and perhaps one day I will get a chance to ask them. Since the interview, I ran into a student of Ed’s who said to me, “Ed just does his thing.” I know what this person was talking about, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for this.

A street camera from Kandahar.


DRM: You’ve done a wide range of work over the years, but considering current events, I’d really like to focus on your work from Afghanistan. I know you have been traveling to Afghanistan for 25 years, but what was it that first prompted you to venture there? And, how difficult was it to even get in the country?

EG: I was travelling in Asia in early 1980. In a guest house in New Delhi I met some travelers who had been in Kabul when the Soviets invaded (this was only a few months after the invasion), also some young Afghan refugees – the first of millions. So I went to Pakistan – Peshawar. One could go up to the Afghan border and go to the tribal areas easily and relativelY safely. A great place to photograph. Still is. Only now you would not survive.
In 1982 I made my first trip with the mujahideen, they would take you across the border, most times in worked, but a few times I was caught.


Taliban at Jadi Maiwand, Kabul, Afghanistan 1997. Ed Grazda

“The Afghans are everywhere in Peshawar…they drive rickshaws, buses and trucks. They open restaurants. They also fight the Russians.” from Afghanistan 1980-1989

DRM: A few weeks ago I saw a quick video in regards to Kabul in the late 1970’s and people were wearing western clothing. It was surprising to see this, and reminded me of just how many transitions this country has been through in recent years. When you first arrived, what was happening in country?

ED: My first trips in the early 1980’s were with the mujahideen, but we were only in the country side and small villages, where life has been pretty much the same for generations.. I didn’t get to Kabul until 1992. In the 1970’s Kabul was the Paris of the East.

Mujahideen at Wageeza, Afghanistan 1983. Ed Grazda

“Almost any Afghan you meet on the street or in the bazaar will offer to take you to their “front” inside Afghanistan if you are a photographer or journalist. Or look like one.” From Afghanistan 1980-1990

DRM: Looking at your work from “Afghanistan 1980-1989” and also your second book “Afghanistan Diary 1992-2000,” it’s clear you are not really focusing on working as a war photographer, but more as a documentary photographer, covering daily life and quiet moments more than front line action. Was this a conscious decision?

EG: yes, I was interested in the culture, landscape etc. not the war per se. I leave war photography to the professionals, with health insurance.

DRM: I’ve never been in a war zone, and when I see imagery from these places I find myself wondering not only about the images, but also about the logistics of how the images were made. What was your mode of operation, both getting in and getting out? How long would you spend in Afghanistan per trip?

EG: in the 1980’s I would go to Peshawar, Pakistan and hook up with a mujahideen group and make arrangement with them to take me into Afghanistan – illegally – sneaking across the border. They would escort me in and out of the country and I would travel with them. A trip was usually 3 weeks to a month.

DRM: The bulk of your Afghan work was done before the days of digital, so what were the logistics of your actual photography? What equipment did you use and how much planning did it require to figure this out?
International press corps at Tora Bora, Afghanistan, early Dec. 2001. Ed Grazda

EG: I always use the same cameras leica M4 & M6, 400ASA film. Travel light, as you had to carry everything your self. If you trusted you gear to a pack animal you might be separated from it for days.

DRM: I can’t imagine being more isolated while working than being in Afghanistan during the war. Your first book also details a few close calls you experienced. Did you ever have illness or injury to deal with and how much a part of daily life was living in fear?

EG: When traveling with the mujahideen you didn’t really have time to worry or be scared, just keeping up with them took all your energy. There were the usual stomach problems and some minor infections, nothing major. I was lucky. If you got appendicitis or were wounded you were in trouble. I was once helped out by Medicines San Frontier people in Afghanistan. Great people.

“Now the problems started. Nobody spoke English. Nobody could read this document that the army sent concerning my case. And nobody wanted to go to the man in charge. Things only got worse. I was sick, my air ticket home was a few days from expiring, my exposed film from the trip was somewhere in Peshawar with some Afghans. My visa was about to expire. That night I slept in the barracks. The next morning I was still covered with huge bites and blisters. Still no one who spoke English: this was hell. The outhouse was two bricks-no hole. In the afternoon I started to yell and demanded to call the American consulate. They brought out the shackles and chains. I challenged them to put them on me. They did.” from Afghanistan 1980-1990

DRM: What was your goal with these images and did this goal change the more time you spent in Afghanistan?

EG: Basically to document the place during those unstable times. In the early 1980’s I really did not have a goal for the pictures. for me it was an interesting place to be and photograph.
I made some good friends who let me into their world and I got some good pictures. Peshawar was a very interesting place then, and safe and cheap. After a few trips my aim was to do a book.

DRM: When you put your first group of images together from Afghanistan what was the reaction to the work, and did the reaction and demand change the longer the war went on?

EG: The only time there was a “demand” (slight) was right after 9/11. Financially it was always a loss, but it was just something I wanted to do. if there had been”interest” from the general
public, perhaps america would not be in the place we are in now in Afghanistan.

DRM: How much of this work ended up in the editorial world? What other outlets did you find for these images?

EG: Many of my photos from the 1980’s were published in The Christian Science Monitor. A few in Time, Newsweek, Soldier of Fortune.etc. But no major assignments.

Jalaladinne Haqanni (white turban) heads to a bank in Peshawar with suitcase. 1986. Ed Grazda

DRM: When was the last time you were in Afghanistan and what impression where you left with as you departed?

EG: I was last there in 2004 for the first presidential election. At the time I thought things might work out. The country was relatively peaceful and safe. Most afghans were very pro American and the election process had seemed
to work.

DRM: Another photographer told me you have one of the few images ever made of Mullah Omar. True? And if so, what is the back story on how that image was made?

EG: I wrote a story for Vanity Fair about the Mullah Omar photo (Feb 2004.) it is on line at (Here is the link: Vanity Fair)

DRM: Your second book, “Afghanistan Diary 1992-2000” covers a time frame when the Taliban were first coming to power. We all know the Taliban views on photography, so how were you able to work?

EG: I went to Kabul in 1997, under Taliban rule, at the time photography was frowned upon, but not yet banned. One could work, but not easily. When I went back in 2000 it was almost impossible to photograph anything.

DRM: Looking at your books it is clear to me you developed a genuine friendship with the people you photographed. Have you been able to keep in touch with any of these people, and were they ever able to see the books?

EG: I always sent photos back to people I knew and later the books. I am still in touch with some of the people from the 1980’s. Afghanistan Diary was for sale in Kabul – and may still be. Afghanistan Diary 1992-2000 was for sale from about 2002 at the book shop in the Kabul Intercon hotel by the man who was written about in the dreadful “Bookseller of Kabul” Also, many friends from the 1980’s kept photo albums that still have my photos in them.

DRM: What is your feeling about what is happening in Afghanistan now? Do you see any hope?

EG: Basically the US government has done nothing to help the Afghan people, everything the Bush
goons did was wrong and self serving. They should be handed over to the Afghan people to be tried as war criminals. I have little hope for a good outcome.

DRM: It seems impossible to do your style of imagery in modern Afghanistan, just due to it being nearly impossible to get out and live with the population. What do you think of the photography coming out of this region today?

EG: I see a lot of dramatic war stuff from “imbeds” but after a while wars seen close up all seem to look the same. And don’t tell me much about the place. I don’t like the idea of working in a situation where I need a government I.D. Etc.

“No one really expected Jalalabad to fall, and the hands of the foreign powers – USA, USSR, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan – were becoming more noticeable. There was not going to be a simple ending. As I spoke to people in Peshawar I realized that it was going to be a long time before things would be settled.” from Afghanistan 1980-1989

DRM: Do you have any plans to return to Afghanistan?

EG: Not at the present time.

If anyone who reads this post has comments or thoughts, please feel free to share them here or email me at milnorpictures at

Also, if you are interested in Ed’s books you can find them here.

Grazda Books

Sam Jones Redux

Glad to see I’m not alone.

I wrote a post about Sam Jones a few months ago, LA-based celebrity photographer, although labeling him that is a little misleading. He does a lot more.

And, “celebrity photographer” in my mind isn’t the most flattering of titles. Sam’s work is different. I mentioned in my post I noticed a cover image from across the supermarcado and knew it was his. I think he has a closeness with those he photographs you don’t typically see in celeb work.

And, he has a PJ background, which I think is also rare.

Take a peak, Sam Jones Interview APhotoeditor.