KT: How did you get into photography? When/what was your first encounter with photography?
MM: Upon entering college at about age 18 I saw many of my fellow students walking around with cameras around their necks. My life was completely changing at that moment as this was the time of student protests over the Vietnam War, race riots all over the country, the assassinations of JFK, RFK, MLK, the Yippie protest at the 1968 Democratic convention, my first experiences with recreational drugs, the counterculture movement: all of these cultural moments began to change my idea of my identity.
And it was the photography of all that was taking place in the culture that captured the attention of students my age. I had plans to study law, but I soon found myself changing my major to philosophy and taking photography classes. The first serious project that I made was when I was 19 years old: the photographs for the People in Cars series that just last year was published as a book. 47 years later the photographs are even more interesting to me than when I first made them because it seems like I could never make pictures like this today.
People are so sensitive about having their pictures made by a stranger, how they might be transmitted via social media, etc., let alone the fact that kids are riding in the front seat, no seatbelts, lots of people smoking, no tinted windows, et al. Being a street photographer is much more difficult than it was a generation ago.
KT: You have published many revolutionary books in your 45 year long photographic journey like ‘Good 70s’, ‘People in Cars’ and one of the most important photobooks from 1970’s ‘Evidence’ with Larry Sultan which was a book of photographs sourced from scientific, industrial, police, military and other archives self-published in 1977. What do you like about photography in a book format? What was the collaborative process between you and Larry Sultan considering you both worked for over 27 years with each other?
MM: Evidence has been shown in many iterations as exhibitions, but the true artwork for me is the book. ‘Evidence’ is a sequential visual narrative comprised of sixty-one photographs, with a beginning, a development and a climax to an end. You can only do that with a book. You can only have the facing page relationships and the memory of what you just saw the page before in a book format. As far as the message, the viewer recognizes a corporate, industrial science fiction. The photographs implicate but they are insufficient for indictment. They are a poem about the amputation of human sensitivity in service to technological progress.
Evidence was inspired by the recognition that there was something in the vernacular that was worth considering as a basis for making a photographic artwork. John Szarkowski had published ‘From the Picture Press’ not too much earlier, and there was a project that some contemporaries of ours, Ken Graves and Mitchell Payne, produced called ‘American Snapshots’. We were also thinking about how Duchamp established the conceptual model of art making by changing an object or image’s context. Robert Heinecken had done this in 1970 in his piece TV/Time Environment where he placed a film transparency of a female nude torso over a TV set and immediately everything on broadcast TV was skewed with sexual connotations via this simple gesture. Marshall McLuhan also was popular at the time speaking about how some media are hot and others cool. We recognized that some images were hot and cool; the cool ones were more ambiguous and could be used in a new context to mean different things. We first explored this in our book How to Read Music in One Evening, 1974, that used advertising imagery and which was a precursor to the Evidence project. We recognized that there was a genre of imagery that hadn’t been mined, from government and corporate sources, images that were not typically available to public view and were intended as documents about the process of specific engineering and technological projects. So, from this background, we started fairly intuitively and decided to start looking.
KT: Your celebrated book “People in Car Photos” in 1970, published by Stanley/Barker, is about you photographing drivers at the intersection, half a block from your house. How did this project originate? What did you wish to achieve with this fascinating/amusing project?
MM: The project came from my experience of seeing Robert Frank’s images of people in cars in The Americans. The car was a major signifier of American culture. Most of Frank’s images of people in cars shows them unaware of being photographed, more of a documentary approach. I wanted a confrontation, I just wanted to see what would happen when I thrust my wide angle lens right up to the car window. In contrast to how this project might play out today, it seemed then that people enjoyed being recognized by the camera and readily participated in the playfulness of the moment. It was warm outside, the car windows were open. It was the window that framed and instilled these portraits with the language of the automobile environment. Now in 2018, 48 years later it seems odd to see so many kids sitting in the front seat, no seat belts and people smoking! They were close enough so I could talk to them as they slowed down, or better even, waiting at the light. I was looking for that moment of contact when you can see in their faces the recognition of being photographed and then a response, sometimes just for an instant, as they glide by me on their way. In making the book and revisiting the 75 rolls of film I shot for “People in Cars,” I am surprised by how many pictures I didn’t really appreciate when I was 19, that I do today. Now I see the subtle details like the reflections captured in the windows of the cars, and how they interact with the people inside. And there are those pictures that I just don’t know how I missed. That young kid all alone in the back seat. How did I not appreciate the pathos of that one?
KT: One of your most important projects ‘Good 70s‘, the exhibition, is based on the boxed set of books and other printed matter that comprise Good 70s, included original publications, long out of print, also contained portraits of 134 photographers and curators as ballplayers including photography genius’s like Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Harry Callahan, Minor White, Aaron Siskind, William Eggleston, Ed Ruscha, John Szarkowski as well as lesser-known artists. What was your fascination with photographers/curators dressed as baseball players? How wild was the experience of photographing the photography masters considering you were still at the initial stage in your career?
MM: Baseball cards are media that accelerate the experience of the game, its history, unify an audience and make the players more immediately accessible, and in fact, public property. As a photo student my first perceptions of the photographic community was that it was a small group of dedicated artists who committed to the art of photography, but at that time were scorned by the art world for negating the imperative of the unique, precious object. This all changed in the 1970s. As photography came to be accepted by the museum, photographers began to take themselves seriously. Photographs were collected for investments, photographers entertained themselves at conventions and openings. Competitions for grants and jobs revolved around a hierarchy of administrators who were taken the most serious of all.
The Baseball-Photographer Trading Cards served as my political cartoons that cut through the pretentiousness of this new photo world of the famous. My the photograph of the photographer, dressed in the costume of the baseball player, participating in the satire, achieved a level of self-critical awareness where the aggressiveness was not directed at the knowing participants, but rather at the game in general. The photo world was equated with a celebrity of baseball heroes and the practice of photography was equated with the American children’s pastime of trading and collecting cards. I never felt that it was difficult to connect to the “masters of photography” because up to this point everyone was so accessible and inviting. For instance, Robert Heinecken was one of the most important Los Angeles photographers at the time. Because I was living in L.A. I had a chance to meet him at various openings. He and I eventually got together so he could suggest photographers that I should seek out. He even gave me $100 to, as he said, “give me few more days on the road.”
One of the first people I contacted to photograph was Imogen Cunningham. But instead of a baseball cap, she wanted to wear a Mao Tse-tung cap for her portrait. Of all the cards, Imogen’s was the most sought after, by far. Upon completion of Imogen’s portrait, I sent one off to Ansel Adams in hopes of persuading him to participate. He agreed, and after phoning him every three weeks for three months to find an open half hour on his schedule, I made an appointment and met him on a very foggy afternoon in Carmel. I decided to compensate for the foggy gloom with electronic flash. Ansel requested the catcher’s position, and I proceeded to underexpose every shot on my two rolls of 120 film because I inadvertently plugged the flash into the M synchronization instead of the “x.” The next day I was very embarrassed to call him and report my mental-mechanical failure, and in three months time again I was able to return and secure more positive results.
My girlfriend and I saved up enough money to take a road trip across the country beginning in October 1974. We pretty much lived out of our car, a 1967 Renault 10. A quick sketch of our route: Santa Cruz – Los Angeles – Las Vegas – Albuquerque – Santa Fe – Boulder – Lincoln – Des Moines – DeKalb – Beloit – Madison – Chicago – Champaign – Carbondale – Bloomington – Louisville – Cincinnati – Columbus – Cleveland – Buffalo – Rochester – New York – New Haven-Providence – Boston – New York – Philadelphia – Washington DC – Gainesville – New Orleans – Houston – Prescott – Los Angeles – then home to Santa Cruz, CA. We travelled 14,000 miles in four months. One of the more poignant moments of the project occurred in San Francisco at the Museum of Modern Art, at a trading card part, where artists, students, camera club members, sports card collectors, and others all mingled together trading cards – a rare moment the diverse interests intersect. In all, there were 134 different cards printed in an edition of 3,000. A checklist was added as an 11th card in about 25% of the packs. I soon contracted a group of high school students to package most of the cards and they worked for about three months of meeting orders. The story of the project was publicized in Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, The LA Times, SF Chronicle, Popular Photography, and just about every other photo publication. The novelty angle was the usual thrust of each article. Newsweek even called me an “amateur photographer turned entrepreneur” The news is made, rarely reported. The cards were never conceived as a commercial enterprise and can only be considered a financial success if the two years time it took to accomplish the project is valued at zero dollars. There are many reasons why people collected the cards, some coincide with my reasons for creating them, others not. There were few photographers I contacted that did not wish to participate.
KT: In one of your interviews, you quoted, “It’s a little bit of a false sense of democratization, what’s happening. I think what’s happened is that it’s gotten much, much worse. There are really just a few people now that get recognized. They’re young people that get out of grad school and there are these vultures of the commercial art market that choose these particular artists. They get the shows, they get published and everyone else is ignored.” We feel that photobooks are democratic in nature yet very limited to the privileged and art-loving audiences only. Your views? Why do you think that photobook world is still dominated by a handful of people? What can be done to make it better?
MM: I don’t think that’s the case anymore. I do believe in the photobook as a democratizing force. Photographers can now use print on demand technology to make their own photobooks. The problem is, of course, distribution: getting the books out there for people to see. But that’s changing as well. There are new Photo Book Fairs that are happening all over the US, and apparently in many parts of the world, where photo book artists can show their work. This new development has made me much more optimistic about how photographers can connect to others and have their work recognized.
KT: Recently renowned photographer Donal Weber shared a photo of ‘Magnum Manifesto as designed by Kummer & Herrman and Magnum photographer Antoine D’Agata‘s ‘Manifesto’ designed and published by Antoine D’Agata’s Studio Vortex on his Instagram and the design of both books was a true copy of each other. Interestingly both the books were shortlisted for the Arles Photobook Prize 2018. There were serious allegations on Antoine D’Agata for plagiarising the design by Kummer & Herrman. What are your views on it? How does one define accountability as a senior photographer in the industry?
MM: I don’t know of this example, but it sounds a lot like Sherrie Levines conceptual act of re-photographing Walker Evans photographs from books and then printing the results as a show in a museum with her name underneath the photos. I believe this speaks to the idea that once the photo is published it becomes something that each of us can own. Levine’s bold appropriation was recognized as a critique of the commodification of art, and an elegy on the death of modernism.
Later, artist Michael Mandiberg photographed Levine’s photographic copies of Evans’ images and posted the results online at AfterSherrieLevine.com for anyone to download and print. Mandiberg also provides a downloadable “certificate of authenticity” specifying that images printed and framed according to precise directions are genuine Mandiberg works. We could add Richard Prince here as he’s appropriated the imagery of the Suicide Girls from Instagram. This poses a lot of interesting academic questions about authorship in this era of electronic dissemination of images.
I think that as long as the audience is aware of the entire dialogue and the questions that it poses, it helps us think about who really owns imagery. At least with Evidence Larry Sultan and I were using photographs made by employing a re-contextualization, ie. creating a new book sequence. This approach seems less fraught with conceptual difficulty than the example you cite above.