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An Interview with Gary Green

Book Store Interview When Midnight Comes Around + The River is Moving Photographs by Gary Green Interview by Christopher J. Johnson The following words are those of photographer Gary Green. I have omitted my questions, as Gary was gracious enough to answer them fully. I have also omitted a handful of ‘ands’ and all the ‘ums.’ Beyond that, this is what Gary said.
When Midnight Comes Around + The River is Moving
Photographs by Gary Green
Interview by Christopher J Johnson

The following words are those of photographer Gary Green. I have omitted my questions, as Gary was gracious enough to answer them fully. I have also omitted a handful of ‘ands’ and all the ‘ums.’ Beyond that, this is what Gary said:

In ’76 I started on the material that would become When Midnight Comes Around, I was 20 or 21. What drew me to the scene was the music, because when I was in high school I had a friend who started to listen to Bowie and the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed so that when I went to college, although I was still listening to some of the stuff that other people were listening to, like the Beatles, I had other friends who were listening to the New York stuff and then Patti Smith came off. Her first record came out in ’75 and I got really excited about that music. All of a sudden it felt like this was my time, this was going to be my music, even though I was young still — it just felt like such exciting music that I’d never heard. So when I left school and moved into the city I started going out and making pictures.

At 21 I was quite a different person. I mean I was and I wasn’t — I was young; I just didn’t have a photographic subject before then, but I did want to photograph the music scene for whatever reason. I wanted to be part of it instead of just a fan. I could make pictures and meet people. So it became a subject matter out of convenience, necessity, and excitement. Those pictures were made in a spell. At the time I really didn’t truly know very much about photography. I’d studied it some; photography education wasn’t what it is now. And, I was self-taught: I taught myself to use the camera, to make my prints. Then, when I was making pictures of the city, of the punk scene, of all that it was very much by the seat of my pants.

When Midnight Comes AroundBy Gary Green.

So I started to study a bit, in New York. I took classes. I took classes with Lisette Model, who is kind of famous. I took a class with Duane Michals at one point. But, it remained intuitive work for me. I was aware of some of the people, photographers: Diane Arbus’s work was introduced to me when I got to New York. So I kind of learned the directness of photography, the power of that really well-described image and I thought, what better than to take my 35mm flash and to go to CBGBs or Max’s and make that kind of work.

Ultimately, after years of doing it, it became both a fine art and a publication thing. I started photographing for a little bit of money, I’d do an album cover — even though I wasn’t making too much money, which made me realize that I’d kind of hit a dead end. At this time a lot of music was moving on; musicians were moving on and I was getting older. So in ’86, ten years after starting those pictures, I left New York. I got married and we moved out of the city. I went back to school. I studied at Bard, where I studied under Stephen Shore and Jon Divola. I wanted a whole other education. It was an education I’d never had. And that slowed me down; it slowed my style down.

I wasn’t making meditative work yet, at that point, but I was starting to look at the landscape. I learned how to use an 8x10 and a 4x5; I had used a view camera before, but only as an assistant, never for my own work. So, with Shore and Divola and some others: Judith Joy Ross, Franke Gohlke, William Chirstenberry, and Emmett Gowin, a lot of people came up to Bard as visitors. Some of them I met, some of them I just went to hear speak, but I started to see a whole other kind of photography. And I fell in love with it. It didn’t take long, with this exposure, but that is where my next path started.

I even felt like the first path was my young work, and that my second path — the more quiet meditative work — was my mature work. It was the work that I hoped would sustain me, because when I first left New York I didn’t know what to do. Once I went back to graduate school, and got back on track and started becoming fully engaged with photography it really changed me a lot. At Bard it was interdisciplinary, so I studied with poets, composers, musicians and painters; so that’s where that started, my change. And, from there on, it was pretty much what I did. I looked slowly and quietly at the landscape. It took me years and years and years to get anywhere with it.

When Midnight Comes AroundBy Gary Green.

I think I’ve always been, and that this comes to me through the way I think, an observer. I’ve always been a little bit on the outside looking in, or from the inside looking in, or from my inside looking out. And I’m aware that when I’m looking I’m always thinking, trying to put together what the narrative is for what other people are doing. To see where I belong. Like I’m running an internal film, and it’s hard for me to escape that. So, I think that the work I make very, very much comes from the inside. It’s looking. At the world.

When I went back to look at the pictures in When Midnight Comes Around in my 50s, I made different choices than I would have when I made the work, because I hadn’t seen those pictures yet, or I hadn’t needed them yet. Previously it was only the celebrity work that I’d share, but the ones of the stage or the crowds where people were just looking, those were previously photographs that I didn’t know what to do with, despite the fact that I had made them… I made a ton of crowd pictures, but for the first time, I was thinking What is this about? Who are these people? Who came to these places?

When Midnight Comes AroundBy Gary Green.

And you can see from those pictures that it’s not like the later, harder punk scene, where they are kind of jumping up and down, crazy — punching each other. Most people sat, which was kind of amazing if you’re watching a Ramones shows; definitely pounding their feet, or pounding on the table, but it wasn’t a very dancy sort of environment. That scene came later, but sometimes the places were full. Mobbed. Like when Patti Smith would play. She was huge then. When Blondie would come to town, those shows would fill up, but most nights it just wasn’t very full. Other bands had their fans, but they weren’t drawing them in like crazy. I remember both, busy and slow nights — from my looking around.

When I came to Maine in ’98 I did the same thing with landscape photography. I didn’t know what to photograph. I just started taking pictures, like anybody would, just to breakthrough. It wasn’t until I started commuting to a teaching gig that I found it. I would find a place to stop off each time in my commute and started what I began to call a landscape diary. I’d stop at the same place, on the way to work, then again on the way home and I’d photograph it. That made me start to feel like a Maine photographer; I’d pick one place — one little place — instead of the whole thing and that’s who my later work is similar to the earlier work, in the punk scene; not so much through the tools I used, or where I was, my environment, but how I’d look at them. The way I’d find to get in.

Moving out of New York was important. Moving to upstate New York in ’86 was a huge change. Getting married was a huge change. I started to slow down. I started a different lifestyle. Then going to Bard, I heard poets reading, Lydia Davis was one of the faculty, Ann Lauterbach — who I still love, even though her poetry is too difficult for me — there was a lot of poetry, poetry and fiction. And I started to put all that stuff together, and I started to put more into my work that was about that kind of everyday vernacular life. When I started looking at Walker Evans, when I started looking at Robert Adams — for sure — Stephen Shore; when I first started studying him I was taken with his work, I didn’t quite get it, but it grew on me quickly once I started to understand it. That uncommon places were quite common places, made uncommon by the light, attention to it, and attention to the image. Working slowly automatically forces you to that and I loved it right away.

I mean just seeing the ground glass, the upside-down landscape on the ground glass takes away its reality, so that you’re just looking at a picture somewhat abstracted by that flip — it causes you to look deeper. And I realized that my previous subjects just weren’t doing it for me. The exciting places, the grand moments like sunsets, or people jumping in the air. I was drawn to the quiet. To just putting the dark cloth over it and peering through my rectangle. I fell in love with it. The deeper I got into it, the further I got into it. The more I loved it.

Meadows, Hills, Fields, Prairies. By Gary Green

When I teach the same thing comes up. I try to steer students that way, not because that’s definitely the way they’ll be working, but I want them to see that photography, which is so-called a medium about the incidents of an event, is not a moment in time, it’s a discrete parcel of time. John S. in the Eye of Photography talked about that; that that parcel could be a full day, an hour, a second of time. That really moved me. This idea about collecting light in your camera.

So the whole thing [moving out of New York, attending Bard] changed me, and definitely spiritually. The whole way into this world for me was looking. It was always right there; as a kid and as an adult, but I didn’t know it as a kid. My predilection for just looking was perfect for photography. And I learned it through the photographers who did that. So by looking at them.

Along the Golden Road. By Gary Green.

What’s spiritual about it? Well if you look at the photographer Emmett Gowin — and you know, I think his father was a preacher, so it comes naturally to him — his way of speaking about his work, made me realize what he puts into it. Even if that’s not something you think looking at his pictures, it’s still in there. So I started to think about what we put into our pictures, even what we think about while taking the pictures, is important.

Stephen Shore is a big proponent of that. He had very little formal education, but he took a class with Minor White (who is very much into the spiritual aspect of photography). So I think that got into me through Minor White through Stephen Shore; this idea that when you’re making a picture, don’t make your mind blank, but let it encourage a sort of meditative, thoughtful notion about how you’re making this picture. It doesn’t mean that it’s all going to be in the picture, but it effects the decisions that you make. It effects the overall group of work that you make when you look at it a certain way.

Still, to this day, I can speed down with my camera — you know, jump out of the car — but once I’m set up, I stop and I slow down and I look and that’s it. That’s my process. If you do that for a while, as I’ve been doing, it eventually becomes quite natural.

The River Is Moving. By Gary Green.
The River Is Moving is a departure. It’s a departure in that I conceptualized it a bit. About two blocks from me is a stream called the Messalonskee stream. It runs into the river eventually, but it’s a place where there’s a walk. So I’ll walk there from my house and through the neighborhood, then along this path which follows the stream and then back around. It was during one of those walks that I made some phone pictures of the reflections in the water. One of them I just really liked and I thought well, that’s so interesting — it’s so obvious, but this tree in it was upside down; it was all about reflection, although it was also not real, in its own sense.

Almost right away I started to take my view camera, even sometimes would drive down — because the idea became to photograph not walk — and just photograph. Make some exposures on sheet film and develop them. I started to get a lot of accidents. Long exposures made it look very different than an iPhone. There was a lot more movement in the work which — to me — makes it more lyrical. It makes it more about time, you know that the river is moving. There’s something about that that is bittersweet. It’s moving, somebody said you can’t stand in the same river twice… Metaphors like that are amazing to me. So I was making these pictures and it took about two years, but it was kind of conceptualized as a contained idea; that I’d make all the pictures there. So it was about the time and that the river is in motion, the time and that the seasons have changed, the time and that the light is changing — I’m changing because over two years we change, and because I looked at these pictures and over two years how I made them changed (being informed by the pictures was important).

The River Is MovingBy Gary Green.

But I was also heavily into a metaphor with them. I’ve always loved that poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird (Wallace Stevens) and that line (The river is moving/ the blackbird is flying away), when I finally came up with it as a title, I thought it’s so much about the environment — it’s so much about what’s changing and who we are now; if the river is moving, Okay. If the river is not moving we’ve got a problem; the blackbird won’t be flying and we won’t be moving and breathing. So it became about everything being one. Stevens is a difficult poet, but that poem — well some of that poem — is really hard. I’ve studied it, but some of the poem isn’t difficult, and that one stanza was just perfect for me.

So the work changed in that it became more lyrical. First of all, it doesn’t include the built environment at all. As much as we can still have pure nature, it was somewhat of a wild place. But, during the same time, I was making pictures around an area of central Maine that were much more about the built environment; so I don’t know if [The River is Moving] was a pause... During COVID when I was locked down, I’d still go out and photograph the stream quite a bit, but also places where nobody was, for instance, the campus where I teach because everybody had gone home. I also started photographing these willow trees, and that was a little bit like the stream too because, again, there was no built environment; it began to feel, I don’t know — a little naughty, because what photographer is out there shooting nature as if it really exists anymore. But during COVID it felt like that’s what I needed. I needed just beauty. Nature’s beauty, and then to find beauty in those photographs. That’s how I got there.

You know, I’ve said this to students many times, if you’re going to compete to make the greatest photograph of Niagara Falls or capture the greatest sunset, go ahead; but you’ll do much better by finding your own selves and that’ll be found by looking at what’s in front of you, what interests you and that’s what should interest you. Where you are. It’s what becomes meaningful in your everyday life. That’s really important to me. I’m not interested in the beauty shots, I’m interested in what’s behind the building, or around the corner, or prairies — and prairies! Prairies are a big bunch of nothing to a lot of people; but I love a prairie. A prairie can be so diverse, the grasses — and, talk about the movement. I’ve always liked that, I’ve always loved how photography can make things still and how photography can show things moving. Again, in that Szarkowski book, he talks about a dog wagging its tail and smearing the photographic plate. I love that because we don’t see blurs, we don’t see still — we see a continuum.

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When Midnight Comes AroundBy Gary Green.
The River Is MovingBy Gary Green.

Gary Green
is an Associate Professor of Art at Colby College, where he has taught photography since 2007. He received his MFA from the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College. Green’s work is held in many collections including those of The RISD Museum in Providence, Rhode Island; the Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon; The Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX; and in Maine at the Portland Museum of Art, and Bowdoin, Bates, and Colby college’s museums of art.