Bokeh Gallery, had the opportunity to visit with the very talented photographer John Wagner whose show will be rolling out tonite at the Bokah Gallery. All for a late afternoon studio visit to talk about his art and get to know the man as an artist, father, and as inspiration.
Bokeh: Of mentors, that someone who opens the door…the vista and says look here…lets start with this …
Did you have a mentor? –
John Wagner: Yes, but not just one I had great instructors at Carbondale (university) Chuck Swedland would bring in the work of Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind…great stuff.
At the time I had no idea I was interested in photography and more interested in just the cameras….as a tool maybe going back to my wood working days… smell of the wood and great tools.
Bokeh: Do you remember your first camera..
JW: Oh yes a Nikon EM .. shrimpy little thing I brought in a drugstore in Freeport, illinois… with the money I had made and sweated out on a paper route.
Bokeh: How old were you
Bokeh: And the camera, shrimpy, what do you mean…
JW: Well when I got to class and saw all the others – shrimpy, shrimpy all the more (laughs) all the other people had cameras, lets just say more substantial. And there was another (mentor) too, David Gilmore.
Bokeh: The David Gilmore of Pink Floyd?
JW: No,but he did look like Roger Daltrey. ( lead singer of the british rock band, The Who) and he taught sensitometry and Chuck,well he taught the non silver.
Bokeh: And what did these individuals impart….
JW: Well they taught me the masters, the details and the care.
Bokeh: Harold Bloom speaks of the “anxiety of Influence” his notion that poets suffer the tension of always trying to out do their, for lack of a better term, their master’s work….lets just say if you had one photographer you admire, one you might if one could really raise ‘em up and heck even have dinner with …give a wink and then tip the hat, who would that be?
JW: Harry Callahan
Bokeh; Any others…lets say Harry Callahan just cant make it through the netherworld.
JW: Then I’m just gonna go with Lanterman *(laughs)
Bokeh: Fine choice
Bokeh: What was it though with Callahan’s that gave you that spark…
JW:Well he was a classic street shooter but he experimented, played all the time…multiple exposures
Bokeh; His wife
JW: Yes Eleanor….lots of those… great stuff and always different.
Bokeh: And Like you from Chicago way.
JW: Yes maybe thats it …
Bokeh: Lets do a little archaeology of your past as an image maker, do you recall that moment that breakthrough image or the first moment when you stepped out of the shadows of these grand talents like Callahan…and knew you had arrived and passed into your own.
JW: (pauses)… well it was a show I did, I shot with the square format…I just remember not a particular image really its was just something there , present in that that body of images…and that all derived from the darkroom part of it
Bokeh: How do you mean
JW: Well I kind of get more excited in that part of the process….I walk, take pictures but in the dark …you put the emotion into it, all there in the darkroom…
Bokeh: Can you describe your process.
JW: Just split tone bleach and sepia….
Bokeh: Well lets keep it at that and not turn the art into plumbing, like they say its the magician not the wand.
Bokeh: Now with such gains in digital, smaller and smaller cameras, the marketplace, this recession… John what sustains you..
JW: My daughter…I mean I love photography I really do, looking at work , the work of others….
I love it all. But… I cant express myself really well ….and maybe thats it- its the work…and maybe through that she’ll see this box full of pictures someday and see how i cared about her , the people I was crazy about, the places I’ve seen – its the only way I can express what they all mean to me.
Bokeh: And that is…
JW: To give Maise the gift of knowing, that and knowing where I came from.
Bokeh: Thats beautiful, thank you.
(John Wagner smiles)
Bokeh: If you were to tell anything to an upcoming photographer, any advice, what would that be…
JW: Most important have fun with shooting –play..don’t spend all the time thinking over the equipment; that and shoot , the more you shoot the more you know…
oh and lay off photoshop…
Bokeh: How do you mean, don’t manipulate?
JW: What I mean is remove stuff…yes the temptations there, but its not worth it.. like this: I was exhibiting at the kickoff for Photo LA and there was an exhibitor there with some really nice stuff…landscapes…stark scenes a single building, great work …and we started talking but he told me he had photoshopped out buildings….and it –
Bokeh: Broke your trust.
JW: Yes ruined it…he had other work and you just wondered…are these people really there or are they just added from other shots, it was just disappointing.
Bokeh: I’m gonna pull back a bit John, and ask this, why do u still shoot with film.
JW: The process…I still shoot digital commercially, its a great tool..but that stuff, they all go into a hard drive- but (he rises and walks over to an old worn box of photopaper) this….(opening and holds up picture…) this I can hold, touch and look through them…rediscover… I could go through the stuff for days and I’ll revisit them and get excited all again and see something new and print it again…
Bokeh: Your images are all compact -tight in their economy and strength… an image complete… and magnified because you partake in and push it to the edges of every step…the whole process even going as far as building the beautiful frames….with all this, do you have a hard time not going back, getting stuck or repeating yourself.
JW: Hmmm, going back…well to tell you truth, what really is hard is seeing a print of mine hanging somewhere and to look at it can make my stomach turn, and I want go back and ‘borrow” it and reprint it and then return it. But regarding making images— there’s always something new.
Like these….(pulls out some landscapes of desert) I printed these small, it softens them
makes the desert more romantic….or this cat…
Bokeh: I hate cats
JW: Me too nasty thing, it would jump on my promotional materials and take a piss -drove me nuts…
Bokeh: What a critic
JW: No kidden’
Bokeh: These photographs gained and surrounding us here and these that will be in the show, were they… or let me me just be blunt… do you ever chance upon a scene and just say holy sh**
JW; Not really, more often its a blur then I come back look at the negatives and thats where I realize where I have been.
Bokeh: Do you make contacts
JW: No I just read the negatives…
Bokeh: How do you keep fresh- what I mean is not getting stuck
JW: (laughs) Thats easy you delete the shi##y ones, no seriously… again I walk alot and shoot if I have a camera with me.
Bokeh: And so when you grab a roll of 120/220 film, load the camera up and seek out, is that when you go into the zone, so to speak?
JW: Yes I’m there…it’s like, as if I have a forcefield around me… I can step into traffic the cars whizzing by and people pointing but I don’t care…its what’s going on for me.
Bokeh: We being sentient creatures, we make distinctions just to understand and in turn be understood..how do you reconcile the tension, or for lack of a better word keep balance amongst those that must divide your commercial work from that of your fine-art.
JW: I was just talking about that to a friend, and thats one I don’t get…that line… many in fine art feel if you shoot commercial your not dedicated… a few months ago I was in big-named gallery in Chicago and I overheard the gallery owner say to her talent, one very successful fine art photographer, that she needed him to shoot the style and kind of this one type of picture, moreso because thats what sells…she was directing him…its a dance…to me there’s really no difference….its all the same…business.
Bokeh: I recall a shot of Ansel Adam’s shooting a picture of school kids….a cutline said even he did the daily work. the commercial gig.
JW: Yeah, that and they seem to quickly forget Weston, Adams…all those names….they all had commercial careers.
Bokeh: Yes, puzzling evidence.
And speaking of the evidence or the need for more, did you get your masters? The reason why I ask is I fondly recall hearing the advice: well most artists we represent have their masters.
JW: Crap….all that teaches you is bullshitting about photography, not taking the picture…and that guy is not gonna be sitting in living room of your home explaining the picture to you every time you look it.
Bokeh: Whats your next project?
JW: the Salton sea….then London
Bokeh: Your images much of them are from your extensive travels…Mexico, Costa Rica, Spain, England – Europe…what comprises your travel kit.
JW: Rollei 6008 and 2 lens…
Bokeh: Thats it
JW: Thats it
An image, and the artist John Wagner, complete.
The Photographer John Wagner : The Light Poetic