by Chas Bowie
Chas Bowie is a writer and artist based in Portland, Oregon. He is the Arts Editor for the Portland Mercury, and his writings and photographs have appeared in publications such as Res, Anthem, Venus, and Tokion. His photographs have also been exhibited at the Portland Art Museum, the Contemporary Art Museum of South Florida, the Elizabeth Leach Gallery, as well as many other galleries and art centers. He is also the founder and author of Your Daily Awesome.
CB: It seems only appropriate to start at the beginning. Your mother was a photo editor at Magnum, wasn’t she?
RB: Yes, she started in the early-’60s. Her job basically was to work with the various photographers, to assist them in organizing their shoots and help them find the right people at the places where they were shooting. So she quite frequently worked with people like Elliot Erwitt and Bruce Davidson, and many of the other people who were there at the time.
CB: Were you interested in this world of documentary photography—or photography at all—when you were growing up?
RB: I was slowly introduced to it. I was born in 1950, so I was in my early teens at the time. I became quite fascinated with it, I think almost by a process of osmosis, because photography books started to pile up, then photographs were hung on the wall. My mother was quite passionate about the job and photography. I had bought cameras and taken pictures, but I started, in my own mind and perhaps in a subconscious way, to separate something that was more aesthetic than an ordinary snapshot. So by the time I was 15 or 16, I think I understood that one could translate that vision into something more concrete in terms of a photograph. This went on for a long time. I never studied photography. I don’t think I ever even took a class in photography in my life, so I didn’t want to make a living at it. I was never interested in anything in photography except maybe self-expression, but I gradually got more involved in it. When I graduated from high school, I got a Nikon camera as a present and during summer breaks in college, I’d plan these long trips—I went to Europe, I went to Mexico—and I started to take pictures. I began to find an identity in the photographs, and I guess that’s how the artistic career started.
CB: Were those the photographs that eventually found their way into your first book?
RB: My first book was Boyhood, and there was one picture in there from 1968. But there was quite an important and crucial sort of intermediate stage that happened after I graduated in 1972. My mother got sick with cancer and died in 1973, and during that period I took up two things. One was that I began to roam all over the place trying to take more artistic photographs, and the other thing is that I started to paint. In 1972 through late ’73, I became obsessed with painting, and at the same time, obsessed with trying to find a more mature way of taking photographs.
And then in 1973, I made a trip that started out as a two month excursion and wound up lasting nearly five years, in which I hitchhiked from Cairo to Capetown, and from Istanbul to New Guinea. During that period, I spent some time in South Africa and started to work in the mineral business, which is what I’ve worked in for 30 years, doing geology and exploration work. When I think now of what the most formative, crucial period in my artistic career was, it was from then, in 1973, until I returned to the States in ’77 or ’78. During this long trip was when I created Boyhood.
CB: One theme that runs throughout your whole career, starting with your subsequent book, Dorps, are these wires – wires running across the walls of houses, people getting tangled up in wires. Did you first start to notice these when you were photographing people’s homes in South Africa?
RB: In Dorps, my goal was to capture the unique aesthetic qualities of South African small towns. And so I went from town to town; in those days, I was working in geology and also taking photographs. It was a five year project, and I went to nearly every small town and village in South Africa. I would notice places that caught my eye or interested me. Some places presented themselves as interesting possibilities, and in some of those houses there were wires were stretched across the walls. For whatever reason, they caught my eye. So what you see in the later work comes from the documentary work that I engaged myself in from 1982 to 1994, when Platteland was finished. So the wires were found in a very objective, documentary way, and I took photographs of those wires as they appeared in those rooms. I would document what was in front of me, what other people had created. Whereas later, the wires are used in a more interactive way.
CB: They have such a painterly effect, almost like…
RB: Like Miro. I agree with you. It’s very interesting—when somebody looks at something as wire-ly as, say, a Miro painting, this issue is never “What is this about?” It’s just seen as an abstract line. In photography, since the basis of photography is “capturing reality”, people always want to know what the meaning of the wires is. In painting, you don’t ask that question. It’s there. It’s part of the composition. So in photography, one wants to place it in some objective format.
When one looks at the wire, one has to understand the dual mechanism that’s behind the wire. One is “What is that wire? What does it mean? What is the metaphor behind it?” That’s one question. The other part of the issue is the formal qualities of the wire. “What does the wire do in the photograph formally?” In many cases, the wire is used to almost stitch the photograph together, to bind one part of the photograph to the other. So you have these two qualities to the wire—one is the formal quality, and the other is based on the metaphor of the content.
I’m not necessarily avoiding your question, but I think that all my photographs, especially the later ones, have a complex level of meaning to them. A lot of the meaning is visual—it’s not necessarily derived from verbal conceptualizations. I’m not able to tell you whether the wires mean this or that. They mean all sorts of different things, and they mean different things to different people, and they have some meanings that are strictly visual. One has to define one’s own level of the picture’s significance. That’s really the only honest answer to that question.
CB: Well, a key difference between a line in a Miro painting and a wire in one of your photographs is that in a Miro, it’s a line—a graphic mark. And in yours, it’s an electrical wire that doubles as a graphic mark. If it were a more representational painting, in which the artist had rendered wires instead of pure lines, we would question their meaning.
RB: Correct. If it was more representational, you would want to know what the meaning of those wires were.
CB: It was in your next book, Platteland, that some of your now-famous portraits started to appear. Were these often residents of the homes you photographed in Dorps?
RB: No. Basically, the difference between Platteland and Dorps is that Dorps is the first and only time I photographed buildings. Like I said, the concept behind it in some ways was to capture the unique aesthetic sensibilities behind them, like Walker Evans did in a way. In Platteland, the concept was trying to photograph or document an archetypal group of people living in the South African countryside, faced with revolution, fear, alienation, isolation, and rejection. This time in South African history was a real period of turmoil, so in a way, I captured something that perhaps had this historic element to it. The way these people were photographed, in my mind, was a metaphor for what a lot of people were feeling. They were feeling unsettled, alienated, and not able to cope in all sorts of ways. So on one hand, these people were relating to the particular set of circumstances that they must have felt at the time. But at the same time, I think the people, somehow or another, were a metaphor for various aspects of the human condition. So I think that the photographs which have become iconic in some ways are more related to the human condition than to the particular circumstances of the time.
CB: It pleases you that they’ve become removed from that political context?
RB: Exactly. I got in a lot of trouble with that book, living in South Africa. I was arrested and had death threats. I wasn’t ready for it at the time. I was doing photography like it was a hobby; I was doing it because I loved it. I wasn’t ready for the media turmoil and all the social anger. I was na?e in some ways. It surprised me that all of a sudden I created this overwhelming disapproval, so I was quite caught aback by that.
In the media, the white South African population had been seen as professional and strong-looking – something essentially that Hitler tried to present to the rest of the world. And suddenly these photographs became what the white population was, or at least one aspect of it. It became quite a talking point. It was not what the rest of the world thought about the population; it went against their preconceived image. I think it was a revelation to a lot of people, not only in South Africa, but outside of South Africa.
In the work after that, Outland, I decided to create pictures that didn’t necessarily have to do with South Africa. The images became stripped of any signs and symbols that could somehow lead you back to South Africa. I wanted them to have a universal sensibility. So everything that led you to belive the pictures were taken in South Africa in Dorps and Platteland were stripped out in Outland. What was also quite interesting was that after Dorps and Platteland, I became known as the guy who photographed poor whites in South Africa. That’s the way, up to Shadow Chamber, that my work had always been interpreted.
CB: Do you think that’s going to be a hard label to shake?
RB: I don’t think so. If you look at the most recent work on my website, you’ll see that there’s hardly even a face in the picture. Shadow Chamber had a mixture of things. The pictures from 2001 and 2002 were of people, which may or may not have connected to the other people I worked with in Platteland and Outland. The later part of that book, where people start to disappear, becomes more abstract in some ways—you can’t interpret them through an understanding of poor white situations. That interpretation has no relevance. I think I’ll outgrow that. I think it’s definitely changed substantially. I’m sure when the next book comes out—hopefully in the next year sometime—there’s not a semblance of that in the work.
CB: How has your relationship with your subjects changed over the years?
RB: I think it changed in Outland. Up to the point when Platteland was taken, basically people would just sort of stand there. I wasn’t too interactive. I went to the house, found these subjects, and took photographs. Whereas in Outland, around ’96 or ’97, I started to interact with the environment and the subject to create these photographs. That continued until about 2003, with an interactive relationship with the subjects, almost a Beckett-type theater. Then in 2003, there was a major shift, when the paintings starting to enter the work, and there’s more of a visual iconography. The faces disappeared and other elements in the picture start to take over.
Up to ’97, I just thought of myself as a photographer. When you come into South Africa, they always ask you your profession. For a long time I’d just say “geologist”. Then I started to put down “photographer.” But then around ’97, a few times I put “artist/photographer.” About that time, I started to deal with the question of what art is. Until around ’97, it didn’t even occur to me, I never even thought about it. I did the pictures in my own isolated way – I wasn’t interacting with other artists, I didn’t go to any shows. When I went overseas for business, I went to some of the museums, but I wasn’t really engaged in the question of “What is art” or “Am I an artist, or am I a photographer?”
I remember in Outland I started to think, “What am I doing here? What is the purpose of these photographs? What am I trying to say? What am I trying to define?” And I remember thinking to myself, “One thing I’m trying to define is, ‘Is chaos fundamental to the world around us, or is order?'” So that is a much different question than trying to define a certain group of people in the South African countryside.
CB: I thought one of the most sly pictures in Shadow Chamber was the one of the mannequin laying in the bed—I thought in that picture you showed your hand as to how you were using humans at that point, where they became almost like props that pointed to human presence, rather than being about the people themselves.
RB: But if you look at those pictures, there’s always something photographic about them. What makes that picture believable or ambiguous is the dog’s eyes. There’s no white in that dog’s eyes. You’re not sure if he’s alive or if he’s dead. If he’s dead, then it feels like a place of the dead, but if he’s alive, it also means there’s something real about the photograph. It wasn’t just set up, there was something that happened spontaneously, there was an authenticity about the moment.
CB: Your photographs tend to always have an element of spontaneity to them, as still as they might appear.
RB: There has to be. That’s such an interesting thing that I’ve discovered in photography. A lot of artists today use photography, and they create these sort of installations or conceptual photographs. But you remember almost none of those photographs. They just sort of sit there and you have to figure out the guy’s theory to get into the work. The reason the images don’t get inside you is because the artists don’t understand anything about photography. You can’t just set things up and photograph them and expect the picture to “zap.” It is very important that the mind feels that there is a moment of truth or a moment of authenticity. It’s really crucial, because if the artist’s hand is seen as too strong, the pictures seem either dead or contrived. The mind doesn’t believe it. The mind has to see that photograph as commenting on some aspect of truth, whatever truth means.
The most common question people ask me, especially in Shadow Chamber, is “Is this place real, did you make it, did you do this, did you do that?” The answer is, there are so many answers to that question. Everything you see in Shadow Chamber is me, because nobody else could take those pictures, even if they went to the same place as me. So it’s way of viewing the world photographically, it’s a very complex way of seeing it. Then, each one of those pictures involves thousands and thousands of subconscious and conscious steps to get to that point. Because photography is such an easy medium to master technically, especially with today’s cameras, people don’t realize that it’s not just being able to pick up a camera. When I lift that camera up to take a picture, I’ve gone through thousands of steps to get to that point. That’s what you’re really seeing; it’s a complex view of the world, through my imagination, through my experiences. It’s a science and art at the same time.
CB: You mentioned Samuel Beckett earlier—how has he influenced your work?
RB: I think the concept was always that it was simple form and deep meaning. And he was trying to deal with really deep levels of the human experience. His later plays are extremely minimalistic, so I try to keep my photographs very simple and minimal. But the hard part, then, is to make deep meaning.
CB: I think along the same lines, that fiction is capable at arriving at an emotional truth that often elude journalists or documentarians.
RB: I agree. But in photography, just remember the very crucial thing, that if the thing is too fictional—you see a lot of this in photography— it just feels contrived. It’s very important that the mind believes there’s something factual there. The strongest photography always has something factual to it. The hard line is to make something factual and fictional and also of high impact. If it goes too fictional, the mind doesn’t believe it. It’s not like in painting or in writing; photography fundamentally is about capturing what’s in front of you. I think there are some exceptions, but that’s the line I’m always having to deal with.
CB: As the drawings and more theatrical elements of your own work have become more prevelant, have you ever considered creating installations in galleries for your photographs could exist in? Or is it all about creating them specifically for the photos?
RB: I’ve thought of that a lot of times. I said to my assistant the other day, “What we have in front of us would be a great installation.” But with something in front of you like that, it carries one meaning. But a photograph of that thing—to be successful—has to create another meaning. The essence of photography is freezing minute periods of time. The mind has to believe that you’ve captured a genuine moment, because that is the purpose of photography. The mind has to believe that the moment can’t be repeated.