Sunday, March 29, 2009
Interview with Alex Segreti
Before I was Born
County Fair, North Carolina
Family Snapshot, 1972
My parents are driving from Michigan this week to visit me and to see my show at Daniel Cooney, so I have been trying to tie-up all loose ends before they arrive, including an interview with Alex Segreti. Alex, who is originally from Chicago, is now a senior in the photography program at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He was given an assignment to interview a photographer who has influenced/inspired him and whom he has never met, and I was flattered when he sent me a set of interview questions.
Alex: I am originally from Chicago and I noticed that you have a lot of connections to the city. What was it like attending UIC for photography (I had considered attending the school but opted to move to New York instead)?
Tema: I moved to New York City during the summer after I graduated from Oberlin College in 1995, but then I moved to Chicago a few months later. I grew up in the Midwest, and Chicago seemed more familiar and more manageable to me at that point in my life. I only applied to graduate programs in Chicago because I wanted to stay in the city. I liked the faculty at UIC, like Doug Ischar and Esther Parada, and felt that our critiques in the photography program were helpful and informative. And I liked Chicago then for its tough grittiness, which influenced what I was photographing. Now, I prefer New York so much as a city, it is almost hard to recall my former romance with the city of Chicago.
Alex: The Chicago Police ride-alongs sounds very interesting – how did it come about/how did you get started on the project? What was it like to actually be there with the police officers?
Tema: I shot the police ride-along images for an organization called the CITY 2000, which commissioned photographers in Chicago to photograph aspects of life in the city during the year 2000 for a series of exhibitions and for an extensive collection of images that now exists in the Comer Archive at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I originally met with one of the CITY 2000’s editors, and we arrived at the idea that I would make pictures of crime scenes.
In the beginning, I bought a police radio from Radio Shack. I drove around in my car listening to the radio, almost like a modern WeeGee, and tried to race to the scene of a crime, except I had no luck with this approach at all. It was pretty comical, really. Then I started contacting police departments, but no one would let me go on rides with them. I was discouraged, but I mentioned my situation to one of my photography students at a city college where I was teaching. My student was a police officer, and he talked to the authorities in his district, and eventually I got my foot in the door. After I went on ride-alongs in this district, it became easier to get authorities in other districts to allow me access as well.
I spent many shifts riding in the back of police cars in some of the roughest neighborhoods on Chicago’s south side. Often, for hours, nothing remarkable would happen, and both the officers and myself would seem to almost crave some drama and action, and I’d feel a little guilty for having these thoughts. Many of the calls were related to domestic violence, and I often watched officers perform the role of social workers. I saw a number of drug dealers get searched and arrested and I photographed an elderly man who had died in his bathroom being carried out of his apartment in a body bag. Actually, the saddest experience for me was watching a dying dog take its last breaths in the parking lot of a housing project. I had developed a special bond with a female police officer, and she was also disturbed by witnessing this death and commented that sometimes it was even harder to watch animals suffer.
While I was shooting this project, I was also at the lowest point in my personal history, and so these recollections of my own demons are inseparable from the experience of making this work in these environments. These are dark, ugly memories that I rarely recall anymore. I left Chicago at the end of the year 2000 to start a new life in Minneapolis.
Alex: My aesthetic is similar to your American Stills project, but in classes at Pratt, I have occasionally been told that it is too 1970s, not contemporary enough. What are your thoughts on that issue and what sort of feedback have you gotten on the American Stills project.
Tema: My American Stills series has never been subjected to a critique in an academic setting, so mostly I only hear the good stuff or nothing at all. I am sure I might hear some comments along the lines of what you are describing if a class or a critic dissected my work.
I was not consciously trying to make retro-looking pictures, but I am conscious of the work that influenced this series, like Eggleston and Shore and Sternfeld. I was interested in similar concerns with color and mood and the American cultural landscape as a subject. I am attracted to a straight–forward style that I associate with this era of photography, and I am not interested in incorporating some of the elements of what we might consider “contemporary photography” – like staging, or high-tech lighting, or digital manipulation.
I tend to be drawn to things with a lot of history and things that evoke some nostalgia. And not just where photographs are concerned. There are very few objects in my apartment besides my computer that were built in the past few decades. My own aesthetic is like a fusion of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. I love films like Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Terrence Malick’s Badlands, and Werner Herzog’s Stroszek. Most of the books on my shelves, besides a lot of art and photography books, are biographies and memoirs and novels by authors like John Updike, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Raymond Carver, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer. All of these influences naturally carry over into what I choose to photograph.
Alex: For your newest project, The Ballad of Sad Young Men, what inspired you to get started (I notice that most of your work from your website is not portraiture)?
Tema: I had been shooting some portraits in Texas, Arizona and Utah before I started this project in New York, but there were only a few that I was happy with. One of portraits that I did like was an image, Teenage Boy, that I made at Barton Springs in Austin in the summer of 2007, and it was one of the sources of inspiration for me to shoot more portraits of young men. I knew for a while that I wanted to make photographs about masculinity and about adolescence, and a conversation in August 2008 with a friend about the song, The Ballad of Sad Young Men, provided the structure I was looking for to make pictures of these subjects on Main Street in Binghamton.
Alex: You received CAAP grants for your project, Dog Show. How did you go about getting the grants and do you have any advice for new photographers interested in receiving grants for their work?
Tema: Those two small CAAP grants are to date, the only grants I have ever received in support of my work, despite the many grants I have applied for in Minnesota and New York. I was a finalist for the McKnight Photography Award in 2005, and I was more disappointed when that grant didn’t come through for me than any of the others. So my advice to new photographers is the same advice I’d give to myself: just keep plugging away and don’t get too discouraged. Clearly, most photographers who do receive grants have a long list of grants they applied for in the past without the same success.
Alex: What are some challenges you faced when working on projects and getting your career started?
Tema: The most obvious challenge is finding a balance between making work and making money. It is still the most difficult challenge in my life as an artist. Besides my part-time positions as a photography instructor and some commercial and editorial photography assignments, I have supported myself over the past fifteen years through jobs as a record store clerk, a bookstore clerk, a waitress, a wedding photographer and a window-dresser. Trying to bring in enough income to survive, let alone to travel to work on photography projects, continues to be challenging – especially in New York City and in this current economy.
Alex: What has your experience been like teaching at the ICP?
Tema: I love teaching at the ICP and I feel very lucky to have established that relationship shortly after I moved to New York from Minnesota in 2005. The ICP anchored me to a photo community during a transition that was difficult and unsettling in many ways. I have enjoyed working with a diverse and international group of students for the past three years and have developed lasting relationships with some smart and wonderful people. I find teaching extremely rewarding and stimulating, and it keeps me even more engaged and organized in terms of my involvement with photography.
Alex: How important do you think education is for photography (undergrad)? Would you advise a student to go on to post-graduate studies?
Tema: I think that entirely depends on the student in question. I value the education I received at Oberlin College and UIC a great deal, and I certainly think that both undergraduate and post-graduate studies can be significant in leading to a career in the arts.
Does that mean everyone who completes a master’s degree is going to succeed in the art world or even work in his or her field of study? Of course not. Does that mean there haven’t been many photographers who have developed successful careers without getting a higher education in photography? Of course not.
Alex: The web plays an important part in today’s society – you have both a website and a blog; how important do you think it is to a career in photography? Has your blog helped you generate ideas? What are some of the benefits you have experienced by writing a blog?
Tema: I think it is crucial for emerging photographers to have a website or a significant body of work on-line, as yes - so much of the dialogue and discovery of photography these days does exist on the web. However, my website is static, and it is simply a resource for completed projects and a list of my accomplishments in photography. My blog is more active, and it reflects my day-to-day involvement in photography. It helps to give me structure for work-in-progress and to reflect about my relationships to other artists and to the art world. Writing has become as integral to my relationship with photography as taking pictures. It helps me to better understand myself and it helps, for those who might read it, to have a better sense of who I am and what I care about. As a result of that, I think it has lead to relationships and opportunities that might not have existed otherwise. And furthermore, a blog is the least expensive and most democratic way for artists to share their work and ideas with the rest of the world.
Alex: Is there any advice you would give someone coming out of school, trying to start their career in photography (networking, gallery representation, portfolios, etc …)?
Tema: Besides continuing to make work, I think the most critical aspect to starting a career in photography is staying involved in a photo community. The more effort an emerging photographer puts into things like writing blogs and supporting other artists and creating their own exhibition opportunities in the beginning, the more likely it is that a gallery will take interest in an artist in the long run. One small step naturally leads to the next, and it is a long and bumpy road, so it is important to develop some patience and endurance. Ultimately, artists make a leap of faith that their talent and passion and commitment to their medium will be recognized. It is important to be productive, visible, engaged – pay attention to your peers and how they are succeeding, and try to learn from them.
Alex: What is the current state of the industry? Where do you think photography is going – visually/aesthetically – in the next 5-10 years?
Tema: These are my least favorite kinds of questions. Photographers and galleries are facing major economic challenges and are trying to find creative and resourceful ways to survive and to move forward; so that’s my response to the current state of the industry. As for where photography is going in the next decade, if I knew the answer to that, it would be really boring and disappointing. Photography is going wherever photographers take it. I hope and trust there will be some good surprises.