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.

Recommended Books: Mauskopf and Hetherington

As you know, I now spend much of my “professional” life in the book world. I’m not a designer, publisher or book expert, but I’ve learned much about books in the past five years, and I’ve fully integrated the idea of the book into my photographic life going back to the mid 1990’s. I’ve self-published over 120 titles, mostly for clients, and I truly enjoy collecting the books of others. My collection is not the largest I’ve seen, not even close actually, nor the most strategic. I simple buy what I love, what resonates with me and what I want to eventually pass along to my nieces and nephews. I’m a part-time Santa Fe dweller and to my chagrin Santa Fe is home to Photoeye, one of the best illustrated book sellers you will ever find. And….it’s within walking distance of my house. I made a pact with myself, “remain calm” whenever I enter Photoeye, but seldom am I able to maintain my initial pledge. So, I came up with a new tact. Just look at one tiny section of the story each time I go in, then talk with Melanie or Rixon and get out as quickly as possible. My goal is to add to my collection each time I “live” in Santa Fe. Recently I made a stop in my home away from home, and came away with two new books I wanted to share with you.

The first book is “Descendants” by Norman Mauskopf, a book published by Santa Fe’s own Twin Palms. Over the past few years I’ve gotten to know Norman both as a photographer and a friend, and I can’t tell you how inspiring he is. I’m forty-two, Norman is a few years older and he knows about photography, a lot about photography. He knows his history, theory and clearly he knows how to execute. Norman has been teaching photography for over thirty years, from Maine to Santa Fe, and has left a real legacy of education in his path. “Descendants” is work created over a twelve year period, work that details Northern New Mexico Latino culture. Not sure if you have spent any time in New Mexico, but in short, what he did..isn’t easy. Not by a long stretch, hence the twelve or so years required to make these images. Folks, I cant’ tell you what this means to me as a fellow photographer. When I turn these pages, see these images, I not only reflect on content and meaning I reflect on what it took to make these. A classic black and white photographer in the rangefinder tradition, Norman works on his on, as opposed to being on assignment and when he prints…he prints silver, darkroom style. If this sounds interesting, stay tuned, I’ve got an interview with Norman locked and loaded and ready to go.

I mentioned before that this book was done by Twin Palms, another one of my stops anytime I’m in Santa Fe. I can’t remember a book done by Twin Palms I didn’t enjoy, and “Descendants” keeps this tradition alive. The cover image on this book just hooked me in, as did the title page. Often times, when I’m working with students, or those new to books, things like a half-title page, or title page get overlooked when it comes to the nuts and bolts of creating a book. I have to admit, a few short years ago, I was guilty of this as well. Now, when I study a book, these things really influence my decision whether to buy, not to buy, recommend, etc. Nothing in these books happens by accident. Every single detail is meticulously planned.

The layout and pacing of this books are really worth studying. Before this book became a reality, I was able to see a large stack of work prints, and one of the questions I had was, “Hmm, how do these fit together.” The underlying theme was clear, but as we all know, the edit and sequence…really cement what the book becomes. Not sure who did the edit and sequence on this, guessing Norman and Twin Palms (I was a C student give me a break) and I think they did a wonderful job.

The final aspect of this book which really contributes to the overall power is the addition of a poem by Jimmy Santiago Baca.To say that Jimmy is a New Mexico legend isn’t going far enough. I’ve read several of his books, including the one about his life, which in itself reads like an adventure novel. The poem is designed to come in and out of the work, shifting, adding, taking away. Very well done and fits the work and vision of the book to a T.

The second book I want to discuss is “Long Story Bit by Bit, Liberia Retold” by Tim Hetherington. This book was published by Umbrage Editions. As many of you know, Hetherington was tragically killed in April of this year while covering the conflict in Libya. You might recognize his name from his work in Afghanistan, including the film “Restrepo” which went on to receive much acclaim. I never had any contact with Tim, but I have to say something here. I know a fair number of people in the photojournalism world and typically, when someones name is mentioned, I normally hear a range of reviews. “This person is great, but they do such and such,” kinda thing. Again, never met Tim, but I have to say, I’ve never heard one negative thing about him, which in itself is intriguing to me. I not only didn’t hear anything negative, I kept hearing about how “different” he was in terms of how he approached his work and WHY he did what he did. I also kept hearing how intelligent he was. So again, I was intrigued. I also thought “Restrepo” was well done and brought home what I imagined it felt like to actually be IN the war. I saw the film and immediately sent links out to the widest range of people possible with the simple opinion, “You need to see this.”

After Tim was killed I, like many many others, tried to find out what had actually happened. After time had passed stories began to emerge that detailed Tim’s life before his trip to Libya. At some point I found an article, which I believe was written by another photographer, regarding running into Tim in Liberia, several years ago, and how Tim didn’t really seem to fit the mold of the traditional photojournalist. The article went on to detail how Tim had lived with rebels in Liberia and had covered the war from basically the opposing side. Again, I was intrigued.

So when I saw this book I immediately opened it up, and I have to say I was hooked from the first image. Many of the photography books I see are from what I would call the monograph tradition, simple, clean design with little text. Typically you have title page, introduction, an essay, etc, but the overall look and feel tends to be very similar. Not this book. Quickly flipping through, front to back, I found myself feeling like I was holding a textbook filled with high quality photography.

The book felt like a country study, a translation of oral history, an interview book, and a long-term photo-essay. I love books that on the surface might appear as one thing only to reveal many faces once inside. A few others that come to mind in this regard is “The World from My Front Porch” by Larry Towell and “Working the Line,” by David Taylor. Books within books if you will.

What also struck me right away about this book was the actual look and feel of the images, which were done in the color square format, one of my favorite formats in photography. Much of the color, square work I see in documentary is portrait heavy, but this book was really done in the classic reportage way but with color square. This might not seem like a big deal, but it does have a dramatic impact on the imagery. This work looks very different from the work I had associated with Tim. In fact, this work resonates with me more than any other still work I’ve seen from him. When I got further into the book what came across loud and clear was how much time he spent, and how close he got to this place, these people and this story. I love to study imagery like this and try to figure out how it was done, what amount of time was required, how much of it was created when the light was great, which normally translates into vast amounts of time on the ground, waiting and watching until things are right which, let’s face it, is getting more uncommon because people are on such short deadlines.

Page by page I found myself getting sucked in, and I found myself thinking as much about the photographer as I did about the images. This might seem like a negative but I don’t see it that way. I think this was happening only because I’m a photographer and I recognized how good the work is. “Long Story Bit by Bit” is not a quick hit by any stretch of the imagination. This was a long, long haul and I have a tremendous appreciation for work like this. As I get older I find myself less and less interested in the action of war. I find myself more and more interested in the “why?” and the surrounding circumstances, before, during and after the war. I also find myself more interested in the photographers who commit, really commit to the long term. In many ways it’s a thankless job, especially when you are working in a place that many people can’t place on a map.

As I progressed through the book, more and more depth began to emerge. Interviews, detailed accounts, time lines, etc. This book was a major undertaking, just based on the copy alone. I’ve only begun to explore this book, and in fact have added it to my “reading” list and put it aside for when I can start, front to back, and realize what this book is truly about. Liberia has somewhat faded from the news, but I feel like I never even really knew what happened there. But now, with this book, I feel I’ve got an intensely personal account of what went down.

We live in the electronic age, but there is something about books that allows me to focus on an issue in a different way. Books force me to live with the story, and the tangibility of the book is part of what lives with me. I can’t click away. I can’t reboot. I can’t turn it power it down, and there is no buffer. I have to face what is inside.