Lenswork interview with Brooks Jensen

February 24, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

Interview with Brooks Jensen, Lenswork Editor

Editor’s note: In May 2013, Brooks Jensen spoke via Skype with Gary Pullar at his home in New South Wales, Australia. Unfortunately, the Skype connection was compromised and the audio unusable. Fortunately, some of it was audible enough to transcribe. Here is a portion of that conversation between Brooks and Gary.

Brooks Jensen

Gary, this is a fabulous body of work and I know precisely why it is so interesting to me, so that’s where I’d like to begin our conversation. They’re interesting because of something you said in your bio materials. You wrote: “Photography as a literal medium holds little interest for me.” Your role-as you see it as a photographer – is not simply to make pictures of what something looks like but to explore something else. When you went to China, what was it that you were thinking you were going to capture?

Gary Pullar

I did a bit of reading on China before I went, and I was struck by the enormity and age of the culture. Also, the fact that China has been in continuous war with either its neighbours or itself for a couple of thousand years. Here was a culture that still survives today. It survived Communisim, Maoism, and civil revolutions. It survived incursions by the Japanese, the French, the British, the Mongol hordes etc. I also read about some of the natural disasters, famines etc. Its still charging ahead. It can’t be stopped.

So I thought to myself, “I’m going to be passing people who are carrying with them five, six, seven or maybe eight decades of this incredible trauma and drama.” I experienced growing up in a very peaceful part of the world; these people will be carrying the scars of these traumas. I was fascinated with the idea of trying to understand what that would mean. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, and what I was going to see, o r how I was going to experience it, but that’s what I went looking for.

BJ

Well that explains the title, Old China. Part of what struck me about the title was what a fascinating pursuit that is. Keeping in mind of course, that we can only make a photograph now. You can’t photograph something that happened 20 years ago. So whatever you were looking to photograph you were on a search – you were on a hunt- for evidence that still existed, either in old people, old places, old buildings, old stores, old shops, old things. That meant you probably must have walked past the modern and the recent in order to hunt for this stuff, but yet you found it.

GP

I found it almost everywhere to be honest.  I didn’t have to hunt that hard.

When it came to photographing people ,that was particularly challenging. When it came to photographing scenes, it was pretty straightforward. When I travelled down the Li River and took all those photos of the mountainscapes, I was on the top level of a traditional Chinese tourist boat.  I had the entire upper floor to myself and know I was on the same river that Marco Polo had travelled. The notion that I could sense the same things that had attracted him absolutely fascinated me.

BJ

The spirit of your photographs definitely comes through, but not just because of what you selected to point your camera at. You’ve chosen a particular palette for most of these that somehow emphasises that age. That gets back to the business about not a literal translation of what you or Marco Polo saw, but you’re doing an  emotional  translation. How did that dark palette come about?

GP

I go very much back to what Ansel Adams said about the negative being the score and the print being the performance. I capture images that are technologically reproducible, given the technology. I basically capture the composition and moment in time. If I get those three things right – technically okay, the composition is right, and the content’s right – that’s all I want to do at the time. This goes to the heart of how a lot of these photos were taken. They weren’t artfully composed. Most of them were taken whilst I walked in the footsteps of my wife who very graciously and patiently travelled with me on this frenetic trip through China. I madly took photos – about 200 a day. I was taking photos almost like a sports photographer. I was literally trying to capture moments as they presented themselves to me. Its really all about what Henri-Cartier Besson calls “the decisive moment.”  I saw something, I wanted it, I grabbed it, and I was done. If I would have waited two seconds things would have fallen apart. I take photos on an emotional level. I see something, I get an emotional response, and I act.

BJ

So when you were capturing all these you weren’t necessarily thinking about this darkish palette. That happened when you got back home.?

GP

Absolutely

BJ
And how did you discover that that’s the way you were going to stylise these images?

GP

It was the same process. I started exploring the possibilities in my digital negatives. First of all, I love black and white work. So the first step was to strip the image of colour and look at what’s tonally in the picture. Assuming that I have the exposure right, the picture is sharp, and the composition is ok, than I start to explore what it will reveal to me. It’s often a process of trial and error. For every picture that I decide to use, there are ten or so examples where I have explored different paths. Then I have to decide which path I am going to take. Edward Weston, I feel, was one of the great romantic photographers. His pictures have a level of sensuality . That the kind of sensuousness that I am looking for in my palette. I like the moody, dark, film noir kind of feeling. I’m really looking for how much emotion I can draw out of the picture.

BJ

The dark nature of these images really struck home for me because when I was in China I saw this. It was one of the things that impressed me. Everywhere indoors in America, we crank up the lights; we’ve got fluorescent lights; the inside of a store is almost as bright as outside the store. But every time I went into any of these Chinese shops they were dark; they were lit with just one or two small bulbs, particularly the older shops which is where you were focusing you attention. And so these shop interiors look in your photographs, exactly like they felt when I was there.

GP

Yes, one street in particular that I remember was in Shanghai. It was essentially a Chines flea market. It was just filled with old things, not really antiques, just old things. Because Shanghai has such an international history, there are a lot of western influences, and the shops along the street were filled with objects that were familiar, but had this foreign feel. I could have spent three or four hours just in this one small area, but we didn’t have the time. Nevertheless, I made some quick images and they are some of my favourites because of the wonderful sense of cross cultural influences.

BJ

China is a huge country. China has lots and lots of different regions, and it’s almost impossible to say anything about China because its almost a myth. – its an intellectual concept. So where I went in China may be entirely different from where you were, but my experiences in China with the people was simply fantastic.

GP

What I was particularly interested in was candid photographs. What I tried to do when I was taking these photos was to capture the moment without the subject knowing it. As soon as someone knows that you’re going to take a photo of them, it changes the nature of the moment. The difference between them knowing and not knowing is measured in tenths of a second. There’s a subtle change in the facial reactions. I have always been particularly impressed with the portraits made by Paul Strand, because of their candid, genuine poses. That’s what I was trying to do in China.

BJ

Well, it’s a terrific body of work and I love that we’re looking through your eyes and your seeing something that no-one would probably see because of the way you are perceiving the world. Thanks so much for sending it in and allowing us to share it with Lenswork readers.

GP

It’s enormously exciting and a privilege to be part of Lenswork.


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