Photographer Q & A

I meet once a month to talk about art, photography, and life with Tom Dolan, an artist and friend from Los Angeles. Here’s a transcript of our latest talk.

Q: Are your photographs telling stories? Is the viewer of your photos supposed to pay attention to the narrative details of what's going on inside them, or are they more about tonality and feel?

JW: A little of both. When I come upon a scene that interests me, I don't know what the story is. It can be the way the sun is hitting the side of a building. Or how major elements of the scene are put together that attracts me. So that’s the feel part. The meaning and stories come later, when I’ve had a chance to sit with the image and contextualize it along with other images and earlier work. That’s when deeper meanings unfold, or not.

Q: But you then attach a story to the photo — you make up a story in your head, to go along?

JW:  They're more like sketches than complete stories. But certain photos might spark a deeper narrative but I’m not making the story up. It’s either in the photo or not and I try to be open to recognizing it and whether it’s a story worth telling. It might be but I may not be the right messenger for it. Or, it doesn’t fit with the work I’m doing now.

Q: So it's not like I need to figure out what the details in this photo are, what part of the narrative they are? I don't need to pay attention to those little details necessarily? When we've talked about your photos you often bring up little details. 'Oh this is the painting on the side of the truck at the gas station' — things that I don't even see, but you're paying attention to a lot of those little details and you’re attaching some story like ‘The kids are on the bench together and maybe she's doing this.’ You seem to be driven by the story part quite a bit to me.

JW: I am driven by the story part but when I'm taking the photograph of it, in the moment, I don’t see the scene as representing anything. I'm taking it on instinct or because it's the way I'm feeling. It can be very meditative when you're out photographing and you can get a bit lost sometimes, so I'm not going to impart too much meaning to it, but definitely what happens is later, when I’m looking at images together, I start to see the little details and make connections between photographs and a storyline might come together.

Q: What makes a good photo? Whether your work or somebody else's work that you like — what is it when you say, ‘That's a good photo’ — what do you look for?

JW: A good photo is one that is doing several different things successfully. One is composition. There's a weight and balance of the compositional elements that are pleasing, or maybe unpleasing if there's a dissonance to the photo, but it's intentional. And that's the second part, that you feel there's a level of intentionality by the photographer. That they are drawing you in to have a particular focus. To draw your attention to something in the photograph that is done purposefully. I think that’s very important for a successful photograph. And then the final thing - besides a compositional balance or imbalance and intentionality - is that there’s some meaning or feeling that you're getting from it. The photograph leaves you with an emotion. You think about it. You remember it. I think really good photographs do that.

Q: Many of the images in your recent work are places where you, and by extension the viewer, are denied access — walls, fences, barricades, taped-off areas, closed doors. We feel not invited in. What is it about these themes that you find interesting? What do you think you're saying by showing us these subjects?

JW: Well, most of these pictures were taken during the pandemic, so access was restricted. But you're right, that does show up in my work, and was in my work before the pandemic. The photographs do have a bit of remove and of appearing outside. I think that sense of peering in has to do with trying to get at something that’s fleeting and transient. To grab onto something, feel something as closely as I can, but at the same time, I can't because time is fleeting and I'm not the subject, I'm the photographer. And that tension may come through in some of the photographs - of really wanting people to see what I see. That is what photographers try to do. But I also think it has to do with how I was brought up. My father was a college professor so we moved around a lot to different college towns. I was always having to adapt and become attuned quickly to new people and places. So, in a way, I was always the new kid looking in on new situations. I’m not sure that feeling has changed much for me.

Q: Is honesty important in photography?

JW: 100 percent honesty in photography is difficult, because you choose to take a picture from a certain vantage point. You're choosing what to include or exclude within the frame. These choices that you're making as the photographer can change the meaning of a photograph dramatically. So I’m not sure you can ever be completely honest.

Q: So, is that dishonest? Do you want the viewer to believe that what they're seeing is real? Is that important?

JW: I think it's important that the viewer might be able to feel what I feel. Not necessarily believe what I believe. But feel what I feel.

Q: But is it still photography’s job to document some actual thing versus something that's staged or something composed or something that's assembled? We're seeing a lot of what still gets called photography that isn't a shutter capturing a real scene anymore. Is that important to you? That you capture a real, existing thing? Does the minute it becomes staged or retouched or re-composed — do you think it's breaking some rule and then it becomes something you're not interested in?

JW: I’m more interested in the unstaged moment that’s as close to real as you can get. That is important to me. There's so much that is staged. So much celebrity, so much positioning and repositioning of things. It all feels like marketing for Instagram. So I might be naive but I do believe a true pure moment, captured in a fraction of a second, is still a powerful and relevant thing.

Q: And you want people to know and believe that's what you're doing. Are you making documentary work?

JW: I’m making documentary just as any documentary has a point of view. Making documents with a point of view.

Q: A lot of what you photograph, the art world would call ‘banal’ — ordinary things, commonplace scenes, unglamorous, unheroic. But by photographing these subjects and presenting them, you're implying they are important for us to look at. What are you finding special here?

JW: Well, I think when you take a photograph, by the very nature of your focus, that you're bringing importance to the subject, and that can be enough. As a photographer, whatever you’re seeing you’re saying, ‘Look here, this is important (or not).’ I want to capture this. Document it. This moment is important. That's kind of where I'm at.

Q: So the point is seeking out specific subjects and places that are normally not considered?

JW: I like the word you used earlier  — ‘unheroic.’ But I'm going to focus on the ‘heroic’ part because it answers your question. I feel everything I photograph IS heroic. It doesn't matter if the subject is a person or a place. Just this past year, during the pandemic, my mother died. My brother died of cancer. I've had my own health issues. I'm older. Just surviving is heroic. Getting out of bed is heroic. Dealing with all the toxicity and authoritarianism in the world is heroic. I was photographing downtown recently and saw this tree. All the cars and people were whizzing by it, not giving it a second thought. As a subject, it wasn’t a particularly unusual tree, as far as trees go, but it felt incredibly brave and proud-looking to me. The tree was persisting and that was enough. I thought, well, this is something I should explore further.

Q: It’s a hard life for a tree in downtown LA.

JW: (Laughter) Exactly and it just kind of struck me that there are these heroic acts occurring all over the place. And I'm very interested in this idea, this theme of persevering — against the passage of time, against the universal tides of life, all of the challenges and try to bring some hope to it. But I’m not doing this in any literal sense or obvious way. I’m not showing some firefighter rescuing a dog from a burning house. It’s much more subtle than that.

Q: I mean it's complex — it's a very relevant theme right now, with films like Nomadland, this kind of stuff that we're seeing. The struggle. And that there’s not necessarily some pot of gold at the end of the rainbow either.

JW: Right, the struggle. We’re all not here for very long and while you are here be ready to get kicked around.

Q: You started taking photographs later in life. You were an entrepreneur and businessman. What made you want to start taking photos?

JW: I've always been a communicator of one sort or another. I published a book of poems with my best friend when I was in junior high school. I was an English major in college. I got into advertising and started creative businesses of my own. I’ve always been persuading people to see things a certain way. It's like ‘come over to my side’ and I'm going to talk you into it or write you into it, and I think I still might be doing that but my images are doing more of the talking. Of course, I’m talking now so I’m not sure how successful I am. Of course the other big part of my wanting to start taking photos is to see more. Talk less and see more. See more of what ’s around you and in you.

Q: You've also made photographs of young, attractive people — models and athletes and musicians — but you choose to not flatter them. You usually shoot them in harsh daylight and in an unposed style. What is it about this approach to photographing people that has made you stick with it and resist a slicker, studio style?

JW: Well I hope I do flatter them but I don’t choose to shoot people in a unslick or unpolished way. It’s just that when I first started photography I didn’t really know a lot about camera, or photo, or lighting technique so I just worked with what I had. But as I’ve gotten more experience, I’ve gotten more comfortable with how I shoot. I’m never going to be happy in a big photo studio with 10 assistants running around. So maybe my style is a bit more low key because it suits my personality and my abilities.  

Q: During the pandemic, you haven’t been able to photograph people. Instead you’ve shot all these mostly unpopulated landscapes. How will your work have changed when you can go back to photographing people?

JW: When I go back to photographing people, I plan to focus on doing portraits of people that are more in service to a larger body of work, so it can fit into a broader theme or narrative. What is the connective tissue between the individual portraits and the overall work? How are they adding as individual photographs and collectively to a bigger meaning?

Q: As the creator, you often conceptually group the photographs by when you took them, where you took them, by place. And we've talked about this, before I've asked you: is that actually important to the viewer's understanding of the photograph? Because to me, they don't seem very much about place. A lot of the photographs seem like they could be from anywhere, but you are grouping them based on your excursion. And is that important? Maybe this is several questions — it leads into this big question of the relationship of the event of you going and taking photographs as a distinct thing from the photographs themselves. Those are two different things. You have one experience creating the pictures, you can only look at it from that point of view. You have this memory of your day or your week, or your trip, which is a very different thing than the curation and organization and choices about presenting which are made later, which is what the viewer experiences.

JW: I grouped some recent work geographically but, I agree, where I took the photographs is not that important. The bigger idea is perseverance and being a witness and that can be found anywhere. The photographing and the curating are very distinct efforts and how, where you conceptually group your photos can change over time. I often have this idea of what the project is going to look like, and then when I’m seeing the images that are coming back, I’m like, oh wait a second — it's not actually that original idea. It's evolved into something else. I think it's important to not be tied down to your original idea and be very open and flexible to what's happening with the work because the work is going to tell you, the work is going to show you the way. When you're sequencing you work, it's amazing what you throw out. You're throwing out pictures you absolutely were convinced were winning pictures when you when you first saw them, but they have no place with where you end up. And then there are the images that become exciting just by their relationship to another picture. It's almost like a reinforcing thread to let another picture become more powerful, or the sum of the two pictures coalesces. So the curation and sequencing and editing of the images is very pliable and can be almost as important as taking the picture.

Q: This is part of what we're talking about before — these moments of kind of thinking and not thinking, right? There's moments where we have to have the intentionality, which involves planning and administrative decisions. But then there's times where we have to not think about those things at all and just let stuff happen and pay attention to that.

JW: Absolutely, yes, you find yourself going back between moments of thinking and non-thinking and both parts of that process enrich the other part. An ah-ha moment I had recently was when I was shut inside my house during the pandemic. I couldn’t photograph people. I was stuck, afraid and confused about what was happening. Then one day I made a commitment to go out and shoot without really knowing what I was going to find. I committed to the process, not the result. And once I made the decision that it's okay - not knowing - the work really started to come in and I learned a lot from that. But if you don't know, you've still got to make the pictures and that's an uncomfortable feeling, especially in the beginning of a project. But you've just got to be committed to seeing what happens. They'll be little moments or ‘tells’— it can be a simple thing that you see or see in a new way and that’s your sign to go that way. It points you to a side street and suddenly you're down that side street for a while and you can even decide to abandon earlier work. It can be fairly dramatic.

Q: I read a thing a few years ago which I never had heard before: Jackson Pollock talked about his drip paintings and he said. ‘I see them like as a film strip — each leads into the next’ and he thought people were wrong to try to understand them as individual paintings. One of the tough things, about photography especially, is photographs are often not treated as singular objects, but are treated as things that can be reproduced endlessly and presented in endless formats. As opposed to say, the thinking of someone like Pollock or Judd, who was very specific about the relation of this sculpture next to that sculpture and how their pieces related to each other. Photographers traditionally haven’t had much control over that. They send their photographs to the magazine. The editor does that, the curator does that. Photographs have been traditionally treated as single images. If you want your images to be seen as sequences, how do you do create that container that locks in a sequence? Now we've got this challenge of the internet or the stream and things are dematerializing even further. How do you try to control the order that people see your photographs? Is that important?

JW: If you’re lucky you'll have certain pictures that people respond to and they're going to be what magazines might want to run, what your editor might want to feature upfront in your book, or someone might want to post on Pinterest. It’s important to show and sequence your work the way you intended but as far as individual pieces, getting split off — that's fine with me. I'm still new to photography and not at a point in my career where I have a say in that but I do get to choose what to create and photobooks and editorial and exhibits seem like a worthy goal to me.

Interview Posted:  2021-05-15