Monday, March 9, 2009

What Do You Do Caroline Cunningham?

I had the good fortune recently to reconnect with the charming and talented writer Caroline Cunningham. We first worked together a few summers ago while photographing a great little summer house on the island of North Haven, Maine. She kindly agreed to chat a bit about photography, pictures and her own relationship to the medium.

ME: What do you do Caroline Cunningham?

"I worked for 13 years as a Contributing Editor at House and Garden Magazine, and wrote about houses, gardens, and a variety of other subjects related to the design world but, most importantly to me (and closest to my heart), a column about contemporary photography. It was an extraordinary intersection of personal and professional passion – I always felt as if I was the luckiest person around to have such an assignment. Now I am a free-lance writer for a number of regional publications, including New England Home and Boston Common."

ME: How did you become someone who writes about photography?

"In a sensational short story called “The Roads Round Pisa”, Isak Dineson wrote something to the effect that ‘if you wait long enough, your life makes sense to you’. And this is a sentiment that is entirely applicable to me.
I have been inexorably intertwined with photography since I was around 12 years old, and my parents gave me a camera, a little 35 mm Fujica (?). I loved the entire craft around photography, not only taking pictures, but, also, the time in, and magical quality of, the darkroom, which became a real focus of my time and energy when I took a course in photography as a high school freshman, and spent hours and hours in Cambridge, with, amazingly enough, Henry Horenstein as my teacher. The school was called “Project” and it was very relaxed, creative, and funky place -- everyone who was there, late at night, during the week and on weekends, wanted to be part of this art experience…I was thrilled to be a part of the program."

Henry Horenstein

"I took loads of photographs and then, as a freshman at Harvard College, took a seminar with the curator at the Fogg, Davis Pratt, in which 12 of us very, very lucky undergraduates were able to sit around a big table and look at amazing, pristine, breathtaking photographs, week after week, and talk about them, and study them in detail, and get CREDIT for our efforts. It was beyond imagining, and set the course for my entire college trajectory, which was to study as much photography as I could get away with as an American History and Literature major.
I managed to convince the History and Literature Thesis Committee that my proposal, on Ben Shahn’s photographs (the Fogg had his collected works) during the FSA would meet their requirements (and not vector too far into a Fine Arts thesis) and then, once I was given the needed approval, proceeded to do just that – write a detailed Fine Arts thesis around Shahn’s (and others) work during the Depression and afterwards, with only the most gratuitous nod towards historical context (which I had, of course, promised I would address).
My graders weren’t easily fooled, but they were, also, fellow photography enthusiasts, so I wasn’t punished too gravely for my transgression…most of all, I think, because my passion for the subject was so palpable, and still is, today."

Ben Shahn

Ben Shahn

ME: Is there a future for the medium of print? What is it?

"You’re asking the wrong person. I have the New York Times as my home page on my laptop, but I can’t imagine beginning my day without the paper spread out before me on my kitchen counter, with my hot cup of coffee in hand…I don’t know, of course, what the viability is for newspapers…I’m hoping they survive…"

ME: What's your favorite place to see photographs?

"My own house, because my own small collection is so precious and special to me….MOMA, because it was there that I spent so many wonderful hours with my Kentucky-born godfather, who was, also, passionate about photography and introduced me to the greats like Abbott and Atget…Any museum that has a contemporary photography show, because it becomes a favorite weekend outing with the children – “art ,then brunch!”

Eugene Atget

ME: What contemporary photographers are you most interested in these days?

"Abe Morell, Nick Nixon, Laura McPhee and David Hillard (some of the time) all live within a mile of my house. I not only adore the work that these four extraordinary artists make, but I, also, adore them, so that’s an easy question to answer…..further afield, I am transfixed by Lynn Davis and Kelli Connell, and Laura Letinsky’s still-life photographs always take my breath away."

Abe Morell

Nicholas Nixon

ME: Who do you think is one of the most underrated photographers? Someone whose work should be seen more often and in more places?

"Funnily enough, I think Nick Nixon is so resolutely anti-publicity that he’s more under the radar than he would be if he were less guarded about his work…and I’m not just saying that because he practically lives next door…"

Nicholas Nixon

ME: If you could possess one photograph from the history of the medium which one would it be and why?

"I would want a Bill Henson photograph that I saw, years ago, when it was already sold out. I couldn’t even have afforded it at the time, and, humorously enough, I couldn't have bought it, even if I could, but it’s never stopped feeling like a loss to me that I couldn’t posses this powerful and haunting image…"

Bill Henson

ME: If you had a new room with blank walls and you had to put up the work of 3 photographers whose work would you choose?

"Bill Henson (the floating girl series, see above); Lynn Davis, either her newer color work or something from her iceberg series; and one of Laura Mcphee’s newest images that I love."

Lynn Davis

Laura McPhee

ME: What overexposed and over hyped photographer's work do you just not like or get?

"I feel betrayed by Annie Leibowitz. I used to think she was an icon and now her work feels predictable, over-hyped, over-imitated, and not all that innovative or interesting… and, of course, she’s gone digital. It’s very difficult to write this because I worshipped her….so much so that, when I was asked, at a millennial New Year’s Eve party what living person I would most like to be, I said, without even pausing to think, “Annie Leibowitz”. I like to think that she just got caught up in a celebrity tsunami because I still think she’s a genius….I’m waiting for her third act."

Earlier Annie Leibowitz

Recent picture by Annie Leibowitz

ME: Any thoughts regarding digital vs analog (film) and the print page vs the internet as a medium.

"I am very very skeptical of digital. I think it’s ruined Annie Leibowitz but I’m a Luddite at heart, so I’m not the right person to address this question with any perspective…"

Lastly, the "NPR desert island" question. If you were on a desert island and could only bring one image, a photograph, with you which picture would it be?

"Clearing Storm, by Ansel Adams. I am one of three sisters…my parents, for their 25th wedding anniversary, thought it would be the perfect gift to give an Ansel Adams to each of their daughters…It’s a beautiful, haunting image but it, also, reminds me of their love and generosity, of how they’ve nurtured my interest and passions –when they drove me to Cambridge late at night when I was a teenager; and took care of my children when I was traveling for work, many years later – it’s my favorite photograph, for what it means to me, and it now hangs in my daughter’s bedroom, because it is, also, her favorite…"

Ansel Adams

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