Interview with myself
Interviewer: What's with the trees? Why not just take pictures of real faces, like everyone else?
Spencer: Are you saying that because the faces are in trees, they aren't real?
I: Are you serious? Is this the way you want to begin this interview?
I: You should be. Answer the question, you jerk.
S: Well, I’m an incredibly clumsy, poorly coordinated person in most any situation; good street photographers have to be kind of invisible and that isn’t going to work if you’re always bumping into things while stuff is falling out of your pockets. I have this odd curiosity about people, though; I see or have a short interaction with them and all of a sudden want to know more, or just to be able to look at them very carefully, thoroughly, for a while. Most anyone didn’t want to be photographed before the advent of Internet. Photographers were sly and fleet, and often sort of stole images without anyone noticing. Most people being photographed would accept having their picture taken as nuisance that didn’t merit substantial bother. The second that kind of situation was over, you usually forgot about it – unless, perhaps someone was photographed doing something really reprehensible. Now that an image can be posted and seen by millions of people within the space of minutes, many people are less tolerant of having their picture taken by strangers with unknown motives. Cartier-Bresson, who put down his camera to draw landscapes, was painfully aware of how horribly invasive it was to take pictures of people that didn’t want to be photographed. I never felt comfortable doing it before the digital age and my few attempts thereafter where so miserable it wasn’t hard to give it up - except when I was taking pictures of people out of focus. Those pictures – some of them are on this website – are kind of stupid, but amazingly, hardly anyone took offense at my taking them. It was as if they sensed that I wasn’t interested in them in focus. You know more than you know you know. Have you ever tried to take a picture of someone who’s looking the other way, is lost in thought and doesn’t realize you’re there, and then suddenly, just before, or while you press the shutter, they turn towards you? Something in them senses what’s going on.
I: What made you turn to trees?
S: My dad was pretty lost a good while before he died. He had lucid moments but he was mostly in his own world the last couple years of his life.
I: Get to the point.
S: Well, during that time he was mostly unable to play a paternal role in any traditional sense. The roles were, as they often are, reversed; my sister and I were kind of taking care of him. As a result, without really realizing it, I no longer felt obliged to try to fulfill his expectations.
S: Yeah, to become a good singer. I was moderately successful as a boy soprano and we all thought I'd just keep going. I went to good music schools and was exposed to and studied with some terrific people but I either wasn't really born with what it takes, or I never figured it out. At 56, I still don’t exactly know why it didn’t work out. But it definitely didn’t.
I: But you still sing?
S: Yeah. It’s mostly chorus stuff, which is less stressful. I haven’t sung a solo tone in more than a year. I start rehearsals in two weeks for Angelotti in Tosca. The part only lasts about 3 minutes but I can easily embarrass myself with this part; I have to spend an inordinate amount of time every day trying to get my voice into dependable shape just for those three minutes. I actually have to remind myself to practice every day because I no longer really identify with singing.
I: You’re boring me.
S: Yeah, sorry. So anyway, my dad was essentially dying at a moment when I was trying to figure out what to do with myself. He was very frail physically and mentally, a bit bent, shrinking, less easy to look up to really in a lot of ways, so maybe I started to look up to other things. I'd taken a few tree face pictures before, mostly of willows, and wanted to see if I could get more out of that, so I went into the woods, where there were lots of trees, which was kind of a mistake, perhaps the kind of wrong turn you have to make to get where you're going. To my own defense, I had no idea at the time where I wanted to go. There are many sets of woods near where I live, and I tried always to go to woods I hadn't been to before. Since I didn't know where I was going with my life, it seemed appropriate to stomp around in places that were unfamiliar to me. For a slovenly city boy, I felt intrepid. Each shoot was a little adventure. The woods here are often thick (hence Black Forrest - not much light) and have a sameness. The trees are upon you, so you have less perspective and can lose your bearings a bit. It was November, so the leaves were gone. I was interested in the trees' bare structures, how they fit together. I think that whole winter, until the leaves started sprouting, out of the perhaps 80,000 pictures I took, there's one I still like. I actually hung up about 50 of them in the lobby of the theater I work in and no one said anything to me about not being able to decipher what I was trying to say, which is odd because theater people can be brutally honest. I thought the pictures were good. Luckily I didn't realize how bad they were until I'd taken better ones, most of which I, of course, yet later, realized were also horrible, if marginally less so. The road to anything worthwhile would seem to be paved with perpetual failure. I just watched the world cup final. Germany was unsuccessful in countless attempts over 112 minutes before finally scoring. I have to be able and willing to endure utter humiliation over long periods of time to get anywhere.
I: So what was the problem with the woods?
S: Their density, which was part of what drew me to them. There was always something in front of, in the middle, or behind the center of my focus. Those pictures were, for me, about a sense of what might await us, of obscured, slightly hidden things. It might be connected to instincts developed when primitive persons walked around unknown areas knowing they didn’t really know what to expect. Unexpected things happen to me all the time. I’ll set off intending to take pictures of one set of trees and find that others are more interesting. My dad’s death was a surprise. He was 88 and confused, but he was very robust physically, eating well, climbing stairs, went for two-mile walks daily, 5 weeks before he died. That's a pretty tough set of ideas to communicate in a photograph of trees. Most of the pictures just ended up being very cluttered. I got a lot out of being alone all that time though, enjoyed the type of concentration isolation permits.
A good part of these pictures was learning to be by myself for long stretches of time. Like Glenn Gould said: For every hour you spend in the company of other human beings you need X number of hours alone.... Isolation is the indispensable component of human happiness.
We think that in order to see things clearly we need to get closer to them, and that’s often true, but it’s just as true for me that going further away from an object or person makes it easier for me to understand them. I can’t tell you how often I wished I hadn’t zoomed in so closely on a treeface, how much better it would have been if I’d taken a step back, and put it in context. Being further away, or alone is the only way I can gain access to my innards. Certain essential parts of me are much more relaxed when I’m alone. After being alone for a while I naturally yearn for other people. Another reason for the faces in the trees. They keep my company.
The pictures are, for me at least, also about our being watched over - not just in an Orwellian sense, in which someone, something is monitoring our every move, our every internet click - but also in a positive sense. We hear daily about all the things that go wrong, but most of us obviously believe in a kind of communal reason and intelligence. Otherwise we wouldn’t leave our houses, drive our cars on the street - never mind on the Autobahn, or buy food at any supermarket. If we didn’t assume that the chances were good that these forays into the unknowable were going to work out, we wouldn’t make them. Amazingly, taking these pictures has helped me develop an unexpected trust in my ability to regularly make something that genuinely interests me. I have no idea really what exactly I’m looking for or where I’ll find it, but there’s hardly ever a session that goes by without a moment when things come together, when I realize that I’m exactly where I want to be, doing what I want to be doing.
I: How did you get out of the woods?
S: I've always been drawn to chestnut tress. There was, still is 50 years later, a big one in the back garden of the house I grew up in, in London. You can see tree from the satellite pictures on Google earth. I remember collecting the chestnuts, which in their form, color and texture, are pretty irresistible to kids. There are tons of chestnut trees in the area where I live now. I was in Stuttgart late August of 2010, where, within the space of about 2 acres, in the center of town, there about 150 of them, and found an image I liked. I was so excited that I went with the SD card directly to the DM (drug store) and made a few prints. I had a dinner date later that evening with my now wife and some friends but had to go, first, because I was and still am, old and fat, for my daily session at the gym. At the gym's reception desk was this trainer, a guy I like. He trained men there in their 40's and 50's individually on this machine called a power plate, driving them to the edge. The men, all of them, would groan so demonstrably everyone else couldn't help but notice. The trainer, Ruben Klingel, is very smart, ambitious and optimistic, but totally unpretentious. His own body is so obviously highly tuned he doesn't need an attitude. He's an athlete, not someone you'd expect to see sipping wine at the opening of an art exhibition. So I whipped out my print, and asked, Ruben, what’s this, and without skipping a beat Ruben said: Eine Frau, which was the way I saw it. Having the sky as a neutral backdrop made what I was getting at clearer. It felt like I had found a language others could understand. I was also obviously closer to the faces in the trees - when taking the photographs - much more akin to the distance one's at when looking at an actual face.
I: What do chestnut trees do for you now.
S: I'm so glad you asked. In the early summer, they're tough to handle because there's hardly any space between the leaves, but already in early August, the leaves begin to dry up and curl, turn into complex, tangram like puzzles, in October and November it's easier. But it's always almost impossible to find something you can bare to look at more than 5 times. I can't tell you how often I thought at first, this is really cool and then realized it was trash. You run the risk of having wasted your time, your life. Most all the people that have seen things have been very encouraging. A dozen people can say the nicest things but it's the shit that sticks to your shoe, the off hand disparaging remark you remember and chew on for weeks and weeks. In the end, though, I'm pretty certain the best of these pictures are worth looking at.
I: Pretty certain? Sounds like you're leaving room for doubt.
S: You have to. I constantly go through the process of questioning and then affirming what I’m doing here. The theater business is a bit different. The brilliant works are there, will never die. So long there's an earth, there will be Verdi and that's very reassuring in a way. A decent classical musician can usually attach himself in some capacity to an institution that regularly performs masterpieces. Although these great artworks are often horribly framed in idiotic productions, the piece itself usually survives, as does great singing. But if you're out there trying to record memorable images, you have nothing to rely on but your own intuition. Although I've had some exhibitions, I haven't really exposed myself to the vicissitudes of the art world. A couple summers ago I dropped books of my stuff off at a few galleries in Berlin. An intelligent woman in a gallery that specializes in photographs connected with nature told me in no uncertain terms how horrible she thought my pictures were. She was a bit reluctant at first but I encouraged her. She never raised her voice but it was obvious she was enraged at my presumption her gallery might be interested in such crap. Her face just got redder and redder; she looked like she was about to have an aneurysm. I felt badly for her, which was a little odd, when you consider she was ripping me apart limb from limb…so to speak. It can't have helped that I was smiling all the while. I mean, it's absurd; when people pour on so much vitriol, a situation loses its legitimacy, becomes a farce. This woman was trying to discourage me for what she was certain my own good, but it seemed (and seems) obvious she had every reason to be encouraging. It takes an enormous measure of self-confidence to do anything properly; any person with a modicum of self-respect will realize when their critic is being openly destructive.
I: Your earlier pictures, like the one from 2010 that Ruben liked, are more or less black and white. Then all of a sudden, in spring of 2012, there's this explosion of color. What's with that?
S: Yeah, the black and white pictures are clearer, easier to decipher. At first I was depressed when spring came, had no idea what to do with blossoms. Many men are very conservative regarding color. Like most guys, I would probably never buy a pink pants. When Frau Merkel appears for an important event in a peppermint green outfit we accept that. Were Barack Obama to show up for a State of the Union speech in a peppermint green suit, he'd be impeached. My wife (#2) and her daughters are color fanatics. What they wear and surround themselves with is very intense. Like some men, I occasionally try to please my wife, so when I saw colors in the trees, I decided to give a try. My son, who's one my toughest critics, said the pictures were gay. Brilliant pinks go hand in hand for many people as feminine. In any case, I've become totally crazy about all sorts of colors in all seasons and blooming trees. What bgan as a concession became an obsession. One of the greatest things about winter is the happy anticipation of spring. There are moments though when colors confuse the issue. I’ve begun, occasionally, to shoot certain situations in black and white. You just have to push a couple buttons on the camera.
I: Are you a fan of Photoshop?
S: Don't even own it. Haven't gotten that far. For me, and, for most of us, without having really thought about it, we assume that most photos are a take on the real. If someone shows me a picture of something, I usually think, unless there's something about the picture that indicates otherwise, that I’m looking at, more or less, what anyone in the same situation would also have seen. Despite all of what we know or suspect about the way an image can be manipulated, photos are still constantly used as a means of showing the way things are. It's important to me that my pictures look as unfettered and unaltered as possible. I use the tools available in iPhoto, and sometimes have misgivings about cropping, changing the contrast, changing a color shot to black and white, or straightening out a face that's askew. Often I take many versions of the same scene as a kind of insurance. I have to, because the camera is a medium that translates what I see into an image. The degree to which what I see is actually in the picture can vary a lot. The camera obviously perceives differently than I, has a different depth of field, and completely different sense of color.
I: You seem to be somewhat behind in the editing process. The last pictures you posted are from fall 2013, a year ago. What's up with that?
S: I thought you'd never ask. Yeah, it's kind of crazy. I'm much more interested in taking pictures than looking at them, so the former has priority. I took more than half a million pictures in '13 and am plowing through the beginning of 2014. I start out with a file of 1000 pictures and whittle them down to 250. From there to about 30 and so on.
I: Hardly economical.
S: You said it. I would obviously never have been able to sustain this type of waste with actual film. I once went with a friend to an exhibition of proof sheets. Robert Frank managed to shoot 3 or 4 masterpieces on a single roll of 36 images. I wasn't even taking pictures at the time and I wanted to throw up. There are real advantages though to first looking at pictures so long after having taken them. It's easier to be objective and more forgiving of failure than I might be were I looking this evening at stuff I'd shot this afternoon.
I: What constitutes for you a good picture?
S: I have to be able to look at it again and again and again and again without barfing. After reducing 160,000 to, say, 60, I show them to a few friends. Then I come back after a while, maybe two weeks, a month, and delete some more. Actually, the weeding never stops. At some point it becomes ridiculous because there’s very little in the world you don’t tire of after a certain amount of exposure. There are dozens of wonderful operas, operettas and musicals I don’t need to hear again for a very long time. Another reason to take new pictures.
I: Are you concerned you or the people you show these pictures to are going to get tired of tree faces?
S: I got a little nervous about it at some juncture but there are so many different types of trees that the project just seems to get bigger and bigger. After some years I'd like to be able to make books and exhibitions devoted to specific trees. Tulip trees. Walnuts, Trumpet trees, Magnolias, Almond, Sycamores, Gleditsias, golden rain trees, and, of course, chestnuts, beeches maybe. Right now, birches are my bitches. I have no idea how long this'll go on but I want to make the most of it. This whole business is only a metaphor for concentration anyway. The faces don't just pop out and say hello; it takes time, persistence and trust in your instincts. I think people looking at these pictures sense what goes into them. I distract incredibly easily. I can't tell you how often I've sat down at my computer and let myself be led so astray that I’ve completely forgotten what my original intention was. I often read more than one book simultaneously. I turn off the sound on my iPhone when taking pictures... I run the risk of missing stuff, but that's fine. IPhones mislead us into thinking we can stay on top of it all. Who cares? I love the feeling of having filled a 32GB chip card in a session. It's a measure of having focused on one thing for a few hours. I feel I've gotten something done, am somehow changed.
I: You have several projects going simultaneously?
S: Yup. Besides, there are still many kinds of trees I know nothing about. I come from New York, know nothing from nature; this is completely new terrain. Being so foreign, though, helps in a way, keeps me fresh, wide eyed. It also doesn't hurt that the trees are bigger than you in every sense, and that they’re constantly changing, always withering or blooming.
I: Who has influenced you?
S: Hockney more than anyone else. He came to nature late in life. I think how it happened is important: He went to England from California to visit his friend Jonathan Silver, who was dying and on the way from where Hockney was staying and the hospital, he saw landscapes that grabbed his attention. Something positive issued from a compassionate gesture. In any case, Hockney's about observing closely, intently, lovingly. His repeated renditions of the same scenes at different times of the year and day from different angles and view points speaks to his life-long preoccupation with perspective, to his profound affection for and loyalty to the scenes he's depicting, his faith in and respect for their vast narrative potential. In a world where we often act as if we kno everything, it's disarming to be confronted with images that so celebrate curiosity, and discovery, that are parts of larger projects that stretch out over weeks, months and years. They reinforce our sense of wonder, of our being a part of often unpredictable things so much larger and more enduring. I return again and again to the same trees all the time and of course they've always changed. A lot happens in few weeks. Tulip trees - 4 years ago, I didn't know what a tulip tree was - are equally interesting in the winter, summer, fall and spring. I don't mean to put myself on the same plane with Hockney. Just that he's an inspiration. Lee Friedlander has also been a good teacher.
Or take Bernd and Hilla Becher. Who gives a fuck about Fachwerkhäuser? Or Gasometer? Their pictures are so wonderfully concentrated, obsessive, organized, perfect, and satisfyingly German, that they’re mesmerizing.
I: What camera do you use?
S: A Nikon 5200. Second to the bottom of the line but easily good enough for my needs; it's made mostly out of plastic, so it's light. I could use a better camera but they're heavy and I'm 56 and ride around all the time on my bike to get to different trees. The town I live in is very hilly and the cemetery, where most the best trees are, is at the very top. I have the camera in my hand for hours at a time and am trying to be kind to my old back.