PHOTOTALKS WITH TOM GRIGGS
BY STEVE BISSON
Tom Griggs is a photographer, writer, editor of Fototazo and educator currently based in Medellín, Colombia.
1. When did you first find yourself drawn to photography? What made you choose a teaching career?
As a painting undergraduate student at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, I took two or three black and white darkroom classes as electives. Those classes started me on a several-year process of questioning painting as a means of framing questions about the world and myself in a satisfying way. Painting began to feel too inward and too general in how I could work with themes. I saw how the speed and portability of photography allowed me to have experiences in the world as a maker, integrating my life and artistic practice more deeply in the process.
© Tom Griggs, View East From Apartment (Kite), from the series “Medallo”, 2011
After graduating, I continued painting, but I felt progressively more isolated in the studio. I began to see my limitations as a painter and painting seemed increasingly restricting in terms of what ideas I could address and ever more at odds with the rest of my life. I eventually lost the pleasure in the act of painting, and without this pleasure, it became simply a struggle which isn’t tenable for long. In 2005 or 2006 I stopped painting entirely and started working only with photography.
© Tom Griggs, Alexa, from the series “Medallo”, 2012
As for teaching, becoming a professor felt like a natural step; it seemed the logical extension and, in many ways, a continuation of my educational process. I keep teaching because I enjoy the role and it feels like meaningful work.
2. You have recently moved to Colombia where you were hired as a Professor of Photography at La Fundación Universitaria Bellas Artes and you also teach at La Universidad de Antioquia. How has this change affected your experience as a professor? What differences do you note in the university with those in your country of origin? What, from the point of view of education, programs and opportunities are available for young students?
As an educator, the change has been both one of possibility and one of challenge. University-level arts education in Colombia is not on par with the United States. I would draw a comparison with US community colleges. As for possibilities, this means I can have an impact on the quality and direction of the photography area within the university. I think it has allowed me to develop deeper and extended connections with my students that want to work more with photography. It’s also exciting to be part of a community moving in the right direction – the programs want to improve.
© Tom Griggs, El Volador (White Dog), from the series “Medallo”, 2012
The challenge, however, is that – with exceptions - the overall academic program and teaching quality are not very high and students tend to be… let’s say “relaxed” about their education. Many students aren’t getting foundational ideas from their professors and don’t learn the discipline or the drive required for the arts.
From what I understand, during the decades of Colombia’s violence-created isolation from the international community, Medellín’s university art departments hired their own graduates; there has been little new input or challenge to the system. This has perpetuated a fairly weak visual arts tradition in the country and a culture of fairly low expectations by the schools and by the students. Why it started and remains a weak tradition belongs to a history I don’t understand.
As for programs and opportunities, the city provides some grants and a number of community-based arts spaces have mural projects, exhibition spaces, workshops, and other types of student-friendly programming. Medellín has a progressive civic vision with an eye towards the arts, but overall visual arts development remains below average in the city and opportunities limited compared to the United States. I think this can also be attributed to the city’s long isolation and the understandable priority to attend to other social issues first.
© Tom Griggs, Natalia (U de A), from the series “Medallo”, 2011
3. What are your inspirations in terms of books and photographers that you have loved the most? Do you have a book to recommend to our readers? Which emerging photographer has recently interested you?
My first inspiration was F. Holland Day. I discovered his work in an exhibition while an undergraduate at the MFA in Boston. I loved his subtle tones, soft edges, and the smoky atmosphere of his prints. His work influenced a lot of my early photographs, including many of the images in Fluorescent Moon.
I work in relation and owe debt to photographers who come from a “subjective documentary” approach, including Frank, Goldin, Friedlander, Winogrand, Moriyama, and Jacob Holdt. I would also list as inspirations Leiter and Eggleston for their early color investigation, Rodchenko and Friedlander for challenging habits of seeing, Brassai for the idea that something nearly incredible rests below the surface of the ordinary, Gilless Peress for his honest thinking and questioning, and Manuel Alvarez Bravo for his investigations of the superreal. I also continue to draw inspiration from painters, including Bonnard, Vuillard, Morandi, Rothko, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Albert York, and Stanley Lewis as well as movie directors such as Fassbinder, Tarkovski, Wong Kar Wai, and Paul Thomas Anderson.
© Tom Griggs, Night View, Escobero, from the series “Medallo”, 2011
I was a graduate school teaching assistant for Nick Nixon and I’ve gone out to help him carry his camera around and have also been photographed by him. As a teacher, photographer, and person he has been important for me to observe. Two of my other graduate school professors - Abe Morell and Laura McPhee – were inspirational through their insightfulness and kindness to me when I was a student. A number of contemporaries also have inspired me with their images and conversations – to name a few: Amani Willett, Kevin Thrasher, Irina Rozovsky, and Gregory Halpern.
As for a book to recommend, I spend my days making photographs, teaching photography, and running a photography website. At the end of the day, usually the last thing I want to read about is photography. I don’t read photographer biographies and rarely read academic texts or criticism. I don’t read a fraction of what I should of what’s published online, especially given I’m currently running a site. Instead I really enjoy reading outside the field. Sometimes it inspires or impacts my thinking about photography, but usually not. I’m currently reading a memoir based in Medellín I’d recommend: Héctor Abad Faciolince’s El Olvido que Seremos – the translated version is titled Oblivion.
© Tom Griggs, Rose, from the series “Medallo”, 2012
And as for an emerging photographer to keep an eye on, pick any number of my students! There are several strong young photographers I have had the good fortune to work with among them. To mention just one, Natalia Lopera has the chance to become a very strong photographer.
4. You are also the editor of the photosite, Fototazo. Please share your thoughts about how Internet and its devices are affecting the production-creation/use of image.
The Internet obviously encourages image production as an immediate and basically free distribution channel. Being online feels like a place at the table; you no longer have to rely on someone else for your images to be available to an audience.
We continue to increase our creation and consumption of images and this speaks to their power and usefulness. This jump in photographic creation is important for growing collective visual literacy. People increasingly “read” images as a source of information. The online image has replaced the daily phone call and the postcard as a way to give family and friends information and to share our news.
© Tom Griggs, Olaya Herrera, from the series “Medallo”, 2011
People argue that we’re saturating our eyes and minds and have entered into an era of over-photography. I don’t believe that by seeing lots of images online that we have “tired eyes” and a diluted appreciation for quality photography. You could easily argue the reverse – looking at crap all day long helps one appreciate images that actually stand out and also to see just how inventive the images of many contemporary photographers are. Most people that look at top-end art and documentary photography – a very small audience – are well aware of the idea of this problem and they continue to engage with and expand the field and to maintain a discerning eye and quality standards.
© Tom Griggs, Ana, Chicago, from the series “Wound and Fountain”, 2007
Over-photography seems to me a problem for archivists, not for art and documentary photographers. Almost every image online is simply there to show or share an event – a party, a baby, a cat hugging a dog, a thief. Researchers of material cultural history and popular culture will have to sift through all this to make some sense of it and to preserve some fraction of it. It doesn’t really concern photographers unless they are interested in commenting on these images and their production as a subject like Erik Kessels’ 24-hour Flickr project.
The hyper-production of MFA photographers and the increase in photographers trying to make it as professionals is an issue in terms of the job market and the art market, but only for those that get into the field without a sense of the odds against becoming a tenured-professor with a New York gallery and a dozen images in the MoMA permanent collection.
© Student work: Andres Sánchez, Desde hace 24 años, 2013
In terms of the field and the advancement of visual culture, I believe a healthy way to consider the increase in photographers in the art and documentary fields is as an extensive, collective visual investigation with more people taking part, not an overcrowded competition. The more people that want to be photographers the better. May it push us all to work in ever more interesting and challenging ways and to higher levels of visual conversation.
5. In terms of documentary photography in South America, what characteristics or differences have you noticed in your research? Do you want to suggest any photographer that deserves a closer attention?
I have to preface any comments on photography in South America by saying my impressions are not highly formed – I’ve only lived here two and a half years - and I should probably keep my comments to just Colombia. I would say from my observations that Colombian photography lives at the extremes – highly conceptual or quite traditional. I think that like a lot of smaller art pockets around the world, it is strongly conceptual because “that’s what international photography is” and people want to be part of it. On the other end, I have met a lot of photographers interested in straight, traditional documentary and in using the camera to capture life around them. There seems to be an analog 35mm revival going on and I currently have a lot of students interested in black and white, although that might be random. Photojournalism is a strong part of the photography world here from what I’ve seen, I should add.
© Student work: Daniela Serna, 2010
© Student work: Filipe Farias, My Cloud #0005, 2012
As for a Colombian photographer who deserves more attention, I would recommend Juan Fernando Ospina who published a book three years ago called Medellín de Calles y Gentes. Unfortunately, while you can see some of his work by searching for his name, a lot of his best images are not online and he has no personal site. This is a maddeningly common problem for getting more familiar with Colombian photographers. You should be able to buy his book online.
6. Finally talk about your personal research. Tell us about your main interests and what projects you have worked on in recent years. What are you working on now? Any ideas for the future?
In the most general terms, right now my interest is to work from the particulars of my personal life and observed experience to create images that connect with others on a more universal level through the visual language of the images individually as well as through the themes of a particular project.
© Student work: Mónica Lorenza Taborda Gutiérrez, from the series “Territorios del destierro”, 2011
I’m currently working on a project with the working title ‘Medallo’ which is the local nickname for Medellín. The city continues to be for many outside of Colombia a place seen from what is was - a one-dimensional caricature of Escobar, cocaine, and cartels - and not for what it is: a complex, diverse city recently named the most innovative in the world that’s rapidly reconnecting with the international community.
My interest with the images is to weave a lyrical vision of my personal experience moving to Medellín that functions in the concrete space of the city in order to substantively augment the shallow range of media and art images of the present-day city and its people. I’m exploring breaking the body of images I’m making for the project into at least two or three sub-projects. Each would shift how I’m defining my “experience” and how I’m approaching the city.
© Student work: Natalia Lopera, Sara, 2013
Every day I would rather make new images than sit in front of the computer messing around with existing images, and for years I haven’t been as diligent as I should be with editing and trying to get work sorted through and out there.
Last year I started a process of going through a large number of images made during the last few years to pull out work that I have never looked at very carefully. These images are being considered as potential material for a new project and also for expanding two existing projects. One is called ‘Wound and Fountain’ - which concerns a difficult period of forced distance from the woman who became my wife - and the other is ‘Fluorescent Moon’, a reflection on contemporary society, speed, and it’s effects.
© Student work: Paulina Restrepo, La tata, 2013
As for the future, ‘Medallo’ looks like it will be ongoing for a while. It might be my first and last film project, mostly because of the difficulties and expenses getting film here to Colombia and then back to the US for developing.
Beyond that, when I finish going through the older images and fleshing out the projects just mentioned, I will look for ways to show or publish that work. I’m also interested in a new portrait project with my wife Ana, a travel project based inside Colombia, and photographing the area where my mother is from, extreme Northern Minnesota.