Ruud Janssen with Roy Arenella – USA
Started on 28-7-1997
RJ: Welcome to this mail-interview. First let me ask you the traditional question. When did you get involved in the mail-art network?
Reply on 28-8-1997
(In the beginning I received some letters from Roy. He was surprised that I invited him, since he has used the rubberstamp: “Photographer” & not “Mail Artist”. He doesn’t consider himself a mail artist and hesitated to participate in this project. But Roy always sent me material about Ray Johnson which he knows quite well and that mostly is reason enough to find out who he is….. On August 28th I received his first answer).
RA: I’ve been on the fringe, the edges, of what I understand to be mail art since about 1971 when I began to send out material in the mails in a sustained & coherent way. I began with postcards collaged with pieces of newspaper clippings, mailed to a few friends & family. I called these mail outs NEWSFAX (my own personal version of the news) and as this project progressed, the list of people who received them grew. Though I occasionally made & sent simple line-drawings, or xeroxed visual pieces, or material collaged onto cards (& I also once did a small booklet) I finally settled on a format of a single 82 x 11″ page of typewriter paper on which I made concrete & visual poems. I used the typewriter mostly, sometimes rubber stamps. Fifteen or 20 copies of each NEWSFAX were made, xeroxed, then mailed out.
I did not think of NEWSFAX as a little “literary” magazine (or a zine); it was meant to be mailed to a few “select” individuals. I tried to design the single page whenever possible to accommodate the folds made by fitting it into an A-2 envelope. It wasn’t available by subscription. Sometimes it was received with a welcome, sometimes not. During the course of 3 years about 36 different “issues” of NEWSFAX were made & sent out to a total of about 25 people. All sorts of people, all known to me. Some people received some issues & didn’t get others.
Eventually a good number of NEWSFAX did get sent to & published in magazines, the first of those being Richard Kostelanetz’ “Assembling” (where in subsequent issues I saw work of contributors I later learned were mail artists).
But in1971 I wasn’t only putting NEWSFAX into the mails. In the Summer of that year, on a visit to Paris, I met Martine Hahn, who lived & was a student there. For several years (until she came to the USA & we were married) the mail between her apartment in Montmartre, Paris & mine in Little Italy, New York was heavy & varied. Not only letters such as lovers write but all manner, shapes & sizes of things were mailed — testing the limits of the postal service’s powers of accommodation. (Better then, than now, I think.)
Some of these mailings were only playful; but some were necessary for carrying between us the more serious ideas & feelings which others, who are not living apart, are able to continually share in person. In our trans-Atlantic circumstances we couldn’t help but learn to communicate by relying heavily on the mailbox. Though Martine & I were able to spend a few months together each year (we of course spoke with each other expensively on the phone) we both depended on the mails not only to carry informational content between us, but to be, in itself, a form of connection. And since Martine was (still is) interested in collage, in writing, in images (she completed a Masters Degree at the University of Paris with a thesis on Concrete Poetry) our correspondence was a connection which was rich and full of diversity.
All through this time (& since the mid 60’s) my major activity was photography. I did mostly personal work, but sometimes paid, commercial jobs. When asked I would say I was a part-time professional but a full time amateur. (The rent was always paid by my job as a social service worker.) I have had one-person exhibits & have been in group shows in a variety of galleries & alternative spaces, from a temporary wall in a public theater to a posh gallery on 57th Street in New York, as well as a few public & private galleries in Europe.
When I began photography, the gallery scene was very sparse. In many ways it was an idyllic time — certainly compared to now. But even then my experience with that scene was never really a relaxed & comfortable one. And since then, things have gotten much worse, from my point of view. (This is not the place to explain why this is the case.)
One of the areas in photography that did give me an enormous amount of satisfaction (& that I was very comfortable with) was making small photographs & mailing them out. At first I sent out the salvageable parts of photos (rejected from the darkroom process) in order not to discard & waste them. But as time went by I began making prints expressly to be used as cards to be mailed out. There was something satisfying & sustaining in knowing that my photos would have an immediate & definite use. Each would go out in the mails to one person, (for one person) who would look at it, & read what I’d written on the back. Otherwise the damned photo would sit in a box, doing nothing, perhaps seen by a few friends. What those boxed photos were actually doing was waiting — waiting & hoping to be hung on a gallery wall. Most of them never were.
My reliance on — dependence on — photo/cards was further increased when I found a way to re-work some of the NEWSFAX pieces, (done originally with a typewriter), as photo/cards. Gradually, by the late 70s, competition for gallery exhibitions got tougher & tougher. So called “Fine Art” photography became high profiled, a Big Business, fierce with competition and exhibiting an ego which I found to be pretentious & obnoxious. I could see that I was beginning to rely more & more on making & sending out photo/cards as my way of doing photography. These little cards, it seemed to me, could carry a whole world.
Because photo/cards combine my interest in photography and the mails, they seem to be any ideal form for me. But I still continue to send out various other kinds of mailings. Aside from NEWSFAX-like pages, I like working with things postal in a personal, autobiographical way. I occasionally do xeroxed pieces, sometimes conceived for & sent to only one person, sometimes sent to several or a group of people. And of course, there are always letters.
RJ: The last year you have been sending me lots of material about Ray Johnson. Did you get in contact with him through the mail or through your photography?
Reply on: 2-10-1997
(After receiving the answer, I also received a postcard with the text : “Begin again Begin again”: Optimist’s Ring, a NEWSFAX ‘as’ photo/card.)
RA: The story of my “contact” with Ray Johnson is a non-story, or a story of non-contact, unless I define that word very broadly.
In order to answer your question in an extended way I will have to interpret contact to mean more than is usually meant. Because I met Ray only twice; spoke with him only once, after one of his happenings, exchanging only a few words about taking his photograph. I sent him a few of my photo postcards; he never sent anything to me. But if you take contact to mean more than just meeting face to face or communicating personally…. then I have plenty to say about Ray. (I’ll call him “Ray” here, though it doesn’t sound right in my ear, since I didn’t know him personally. But calling him anything else would be a little silly; too stiff, too formal.)
While answering your first interview question I was browsing through some papers about NEWSFAX & found an old, yellowing, 3×5 index card on which I’d written: “Ray Johnson / 65 Landing Road / Glen Cove NY 11542 // Mail Stuff.” It was meant as a reminder to mail NEWSFAX to him. But I never did. And I don’t know why I didn’t. That’s the earliest example of what I mean by non-contact.
I wrote you earlier about the best of my non-contacts with Ray: the one that took place a few years ago when my wife & I were leaving the Nassau County Museum of Art where we had gone specifically to buy a few more catalogs of an exhibit that he had at the museum 4 or 5 years previous to our visit. (I had not seen that major exhibition, but had spotted the catalogs in the museum shop on another, previous visit.) As we were walking out the main door of the museum with 2 copies of the newly bought catalog, Ray walked in. I recognized him of course but didn’t know him personally. My wife nudged me and suggested that I say hello, acknowledge my purchases & perhaps talk with him. But I shied away from this — probably worried that I would appear too much the “admiring fan”. My wife — who is the social part of our family, I the unsocial — took the catalogs from me & retraced her steps to catch up with Ray. They talked a long time, while I walked around the museum grounds & finally sat in the car & waited for her to return. (For the record, I should say that my wife’s version of this story differs from mine a little. She remembers, for example, that she introduced me to him & we exchanged a few words. I remember none of that). When my wife returned she showed me the catalog which Ray had inscribed for us with a few words & a snake drawing. But more importantly — it turned out later — she gave me the issue of Rubberstamp Madness which he was carrying & had given to her (because he was featured in it as the cover story). I say “more importantly” because it was from this magazine (via another zine) that I eventually found SHOTS, a photo magazine which over the years has published many of my pictures & has been an enormous source of enjoyment & satisfaction to me. (Thank you, Ray.) But the best & most exciting news my wife came back to the car with was the promise that Ray was going to put us on the list of the NY Correspondence School & that we would eventually be getting things in the mail. But we never did. That never did happen.
After a long wait (with nothing from Ray) I did make a few half-hearted attempts at connection by sending him a few photo/cards. But I heard nothing in response. So much for my second non-contact.
The real contact with Ray (contact in the broader sense that I referred to earlier) came first in an article which appeared in the mass-circulation magazine New York (early 1970). The short article of several pages & 3 or 4 illustrations has really stuck in my mind through all these years. Of course I’d heard of Ray Johnson before that article & I’d seen his work. And I liked his work. But as I remember it now it was this article which helped me understand a little bit more about what I was seeing in Ray Johnson. There were two things mentioned in it that struck me strongly then & have stuck with me since. Over the years these two remarks have become very important to me.
The first was a little story of a few lines about how Ray once took a taxi ride from one bar to another because of the way the names of the 2 bars related to each other — either in a punning manner or some other, poetic way (I don’t remember now). I thought that this was a terrific thing for somebody to do — I mean, I had admiration for a man whose imagination is constructed in such a way that it worked on, and with, the real, everyday world — an imagination that used the very ordinary, but also (somehow hidden) common world to make poetry.
The second thing I remember from that article was a critic pointing out that you couldn’t buy Ray’s (mail) art; you could only receive it in your mailbox & this was interpreted as undermining the entrenched profit motive of the world of gallery art. Though this could be seen as part of the larger threat that Conceptual Art was staging during this same time, I could more easily identify with Ray’s activities than I could with the “heavier” (and often more pretentious & overly belabored) “strategies” of the conceptualists. Almost everybody has a mailbox & Ray’s ideas took the shine off art’s snob appeal & in my eyes strengthened the idea that art was an activity, not a professional career.
These two ideas picked up from the magazine article weren’t the only important things that I remembered about Ray at that time. Of course there was the work itself, which, as mentioned, I already was looking at. (I had also seen Ray in the flesh occasionally, on the streets of the newly burgeoning art district, SOHO). I liked the work a lot (more than I knew how to say), the formal collages as well as the ephemeral “throw-away”‘ mail art, (liking the latter better, as time passed). For me Ray’s work was very appealing; it had a homemade, endearing quality. I liked almost everything I saw. A lot of it looked like work anybody could do, (especially the mail art) but we all know that it’s not as easy as it looks. All the material things that go into it are always at hand for everybody to use, but…… who has put those things together the way Ray did?
I don’t mean to suggest here that my eyes were always turned only to Ray Johnson on matters concerning art; that is absolutely not the case. But it is true that there was some inexplicable power to his activities & a good many of his ideas that held me longer than the same or similar ideas of other artists — artists who were earlier, more main stream & famous & respected, “heavier” & more vociferous than he was. Maybe it was his “lightness” his fleet footlessness that kept him always out there in front.
So I kept up these kinds of “contacts” (as an outsider) with Ray’s work through the years. I have certainly made no study of it, but my take on it has been — put simply — that Ray was a “connector”, a lyrical connector — (yet, himself a loner). I’ve always chosen to emphasize this aspect of his work rather than the slapstick, dada goofiness part. (This understanding of Ray, by the way, at first made his “final departure” very strong for me: The Connector Severs All Active Connections — to put it in the glibness of newspaper headlines.)
I think it was at a memorial tribute to Ray, a year after his death (in his hometown library) that I heard someone mention that he had become interested near the end in nature, & had begun taking daily walks along the water’s edge, near where he lived. I was happy to hear about that & wondered how this interest would have eventually shown itself in his work. (“Nature” getting less & less attention from “modern” artists these days.) I was even happier to hear that he had gotten interested as well in photography, in taking his own pictures. And it really warmed me when someone said that for his photography he used one of those inexpensive, “disposable” cameras. “Incredible!” I thought to myself when I heard that.
At the beginning of this year I went out to Sag Harbor. I thought that you & a few other people I know would be interested in having a photograph of “…the bridge from which Ray Johnson……” Though I knew exactly where it was (our country house is only at 20 minutes from the spot) I kept putting off driving there. When I finally went, the weather was typical of one kind of Long Island day: low, gray skies, gray air full of moisture; no color anywhere. I thought by taking a picture of that bridge I’d finish up some unfinished personal business & be done with thinking about it. But of course the connections only deepened. The web got tighter. (Here I am in that web, struggling with this answer to your question!) Maybe this sense of connection is what gave Ray’s work the appeal it had for me right from the very beginning, even though I didn’t name it then. In a sense it was then already functioning as a connecting apparatus. And a thing like that doesn’t get broken easily.
RJ: Your name isn’t mentioned a lot in mail art texts, books and other related material. Are you in touch with a lot of people who “call” themselves a “mail artist” (like me)?
Reply on 8-12-1997
RA: A few months ago a poet friend of mine mentioned that he had bought a book — a bibliography of international concrete poetry — and that my name was listed in it. I was only a little surprised. But I’d be very surprised if my name were listed in a similar book on mail art.
Perhaps there might be a mention in material connected with some mail art shows I contributed to in the 70’s. One, I remember, was a large show with hundreds of artists and probably a few thousand contributors (“The First New York City Post Card Show”, 1975). I also remember a few mailings back and forth with Al Souza after contributing to his “International Mail Art Postcard Exhibition” in 1977 at Smith College in Massachusetts. I contributed work to a show of language art in Toronto ( “Language And Structure in North America”, 1975). This wasn’t really a mail art show, but if I go back over the list of contributors I’m sure I’d find some “names” you would recognize as mail artists. (Ray Johnson was in that show, as well as some Fluxus “names”.) There were a few other shows, but these are the ones I remember now. My contributions were either photo postcards or visual poetry.
Most of the people I’m in touch with regularly now don’t call themselves mail artists; they are “poets”, “photographers”, etc. But there are a few recent contacts (besides yourself) who do. One in Washington state, one in NYC, one in the mid-West. There are others with whom I exchange photo postcards; but I would say that they think of themselves mostly as photographers, who also use the mails.
And then I am in touch with “just plain folks”, who don’t consider themselves any kind of artists at all. Of course, they are the greatest challenge. I can imagine them (when receiving some of the things I send) scratching their heads and saying to themselves “Now what in the hell is this all about !!?” Keeping a communication open with those folks is not an easy matter, is often dismally frustrating. But sometimes it works : and a connection is sustained. And it’s a great feeling of satisfaction.
RJ: There are a lot of these “poets”, “painters”, “photographers”, etc. playing in the mail art network. For me it isn’t interesting whether they think of themselves as mail artists or not, it is interesting for me to see what they are doing and how they are evolving. I guess that is why sometimes this “connection is sustained”. Sometimes by mail, sometimes in other forms. What interest me most of the time is: Why do people make art? Why do you make art, Roy?
Reply on 2-3-1998
(Before I retyped Roy’s answer and sending the next question some time passes in which we still communicate by mail. Roy sent me some of his photo/cards and the magazine SHOTS in which an article by him is included.)
RA: So there is your next question & it’s a “heavy” one — especially if one is inclined to carry it to a serious level. It would be nice to have the necessary knowledge & all the time in the world to try to answer it fully, on many levels. But that’s just not the case here. You do the best you can.
Recently we’ve sold our house in the country & among other things this necessitated that I go through years of accumulated paperwork. This gave me the opportunity to look at some of my old notes & written statements for exhibitions. I found that in the past whenever I tried to write down an answer to a question similar to the one you’ve just asked me, I tended to be too heavy-handed & unnecessarily complicated in my responses. Looking at those attempts now I am embarrassed at their pretensions. (As an example I’ve included a catalog from my photo exhibition at the American Cultural Center in Paris in 1976). As time went by I learned how to use quotes from other people in my answers. In a way, doing that was easier & I could always blame the pretention on the people quoted. I suspect that I will also look back on this reply to you & wish that I could have answered it more clearly, closer to the bone & more honestly.
But I’m stalling now…. your question still faces me. It won’t go away. And in good conscience I couldn’t say that I don’t know why I make photographs; because, to some extent, I do know. And though it’s always tempting to hide behind a flippant, dada-like answer or to resort to the Zen practice of turning the question on its head, I prefer to stumble along with a straight forward answer, no matter that it’s not as clear as I’d like it to be.
Maybe I can begin by first backing up a little bit….. & mentioning that something bothered me a bit in the preamble to your question: you say that a lot of poets, painters, photographers are “playing” in the mail art network. Now, I’m wondering why that word, “playing” bothers me in this context. Does it mean something different in Dutch/English than it does to me in American/English? I hope that I didn’t give you the impression that the non-mail artists I know, who use the mail, are only “playing” at it. And I hope you don’t think I am.
No, I’m dead serious about using the mails. I’ve already told you about my own personal frustrations with the traditional world of galleries, the art world “proper”. I’ve told you how I don’t fit into that world very well (& they certainly don’t need to accommodate me). No. Putting my photographs (& words & collages) into the mail & sending them to individual people is the best hope for me now. This seems now to be the best way open for me to “connect”. And though you may connect “playfully”, connecting, as such, is a serious matter.
Connecting is part of the reason I make pictures. I didn’t always think so. I used to think that one could paint or write or photograph only for him/herself. But I think differently now. Having a connection with others gives you a possibility to share what you’ve made & that’s important for the obvious reasons & important also because one needs to have a reaction to what one makes, even if only a silent — no words — reaction.
I think that the deepest reason for my making pictures is because it completes a very natural human process. This process starts with the outside world stimulating a thought, feeling, intuition. You work on these things inside your own head/body because there is a human need to react to the world in this way. We are not stones. You take the world inside you and work on it till you are at home with it (or it is at home with you); until it’s “yours” . You construct (or rather reconstruct) your version of it inside you. But you don’t stop there. There is a next step. And that step is to find a way to get what’s inside your head, outside of it. You shape the thought, feeling, intuition into a form which can stand outside of you on its own in the “real” world. The form can be a photograph, poem, drawing or whatever. Naturally you want this thing you’ve made to feel “right” to you, so you shape it to the thought, feeling or intuition as you knew of those things when they were inside you, when you recognized them as your own.
And as I mentioned earlier, there’s still a further step: someone else needs to experience what you’ve made; it is then that it becomes another “thing” out there in the real world. That completes the process. (Except, of course, for what happens in the people — including yourself — who experience what you have made.) You go on to make the next thing. You have begun to create a world.
This whole process is very natural. I don’t think about it in exalted, cosmic or mystical terms. It’s almost a biological process. To some extent it happens to everybody. Though most people don’t allow the process to go further than the “taking in” stage. They don’t form & then give back to the world what they’ve made of it.
Though I promised myself this time that I would answer your question with my own words, wouldn’t rely on quoting somebody else, I can’t resist it. One of my favorite quotes is from the American poet William Carlos Williams. It reads easily & is not pretentious. In it — I’m certain — can be found a good, short answer to your question. “For life is to walk about, to see, which is to feel, to express as we have said, or to sum, to give praise, to put into form what we see which is our only service.”
RJ: First. “Playing” was meant positive Roy. One sends something into the network and never knows what comes out. I used the word playing because of the intention that mail art is supposed to have. Not the sense of “faking”. I like to think that Ray also saw the NYCS as a playground for his art. When an artist from another field (poets, painters, etc) plays in the mail network, I mean that he/she uses this network to share his art with others, gains experiences from others, gets stimulations from the network. Playing the network is a positive thing. In your answer I see the same.
To give you an example of this playing. You mentioned in one of your letters you had met with John Evans in New York. Currently I am interviewing him as well, and with the next question to John I told him that I was interviewing you as well. One of the photos you took of John you send as a photo/card to him, and he now forwarded it to me. Now that is how things can go in the network. You never know what happens to the things you send out. By the way, I enjoyed the photo very much! Never knew before what John Evans looked like although I am in contact with him for years.
For me this word playing is maybe important in life as well. Playing is also discovering new things, learning. That is why children like to play so much. When one grows up one should not forget to play, let the child stay inside.
But now I ramble on, I should ask a new question to you Roy. Does this all make sense to you?
Reply on May 20th 1998
RA: Yes, it makes sense to me. It sounds like one of the ways that you are using the word “play” is like we might use it here for sports: the team “put the ball into play”. And, of course, after the ball is in play anything can happen. It makes even more sense when you bring the idea of child’s play into the discussion — active, imaginative play, play that engages the child’s attention completely.
I find though that once you’re out of childhood it isn’t easy to play. Everything in adult life seems to be set up against it. Adult “play” is often negative or even destructive. It’s doing something but knowing that you should be doing something else, something “important”. The paradox is that once you are an adult, it’s not easy to play; you’ve got to work at it. That’s what I mean about play being serious.
I wasn’t sure what you meant when you mentioned poets, painters & photographers “playing” in the network. You could have meant “play” as something frivolous, or easy; something you do while waiting for the “real” thing to happen. The poet or painter playing in the network until the time comes to get serious in the art world proper. But if I now understand your meaning rightly, then we agree.
By the way, I am very happy that John Evans sent you that photo/card. One of the things I stressed in the article in Shots is that I like my pictures to have use (in the world outside my own head). John has made use of one of them & you have also — if only by using it to illustrate something to me in your last question. That’s great!
(After the answer I got more mail from Roy. One of them a photo/card of Dick Higgins, who he met in May 1998.).
RJ: Knowing a bit more about your photo work (you send me these beautiful photo/cards!) I realize you often like to make portraits. Even portraits of non-existing persons when the lines of nature make them visual for us (examples are the two photo/cards you sent which you made in New York). Is it true that you like to make portraits? Why?
Reply on 29-07-1998
(Because of a break in the interviews I only retyped the question in January 1999 and then sent Roy the next question. In these last months we did exchange mail a lot. Also Roy, and his wife Martine, moved to another address where Roy now has a P.O. Box. A last photo/card I received from Roy was this photo/card, and from his wife I received an e-mail with some photo’s of them during Christmas-time 1998/1999. With Roy’s answer I received the pages from the magazine SHOTS which published some photo’s and a letter of him – issue #51, March 1996)
RA: You’re question surprises me! I don’t normally think of myself in connection with portraits. Though, God knows, I’ve sent you a lot of photo/cards & even other types of work which were concerned with the idea of “the portrait”. Yet I would not categorize myself as a “portrait photographer” (nor even as a “people photographer”). And to answer your specific question, I don’t particularly like making portraits. It’s a question of personality & I am just not comfortable pointing a camera at someone’s face. Or maybe I should say that there are other kinds of photography that I like doing much more. But yes, portraits are important to me.
I guess I sent you portrait things because I thought that you might be more interested in them than in the other kinds of photography I do. And I thought that you also might be interested in the subjects of some of these portraits. I try to pay attention to what the receiver of what I’m sending might have an interest in. In the same mail with your question came a photo/card from a photographer in Los Angeles with whom I’ve recently begun exchanging cards. I think that he’s a photojournalist (his pictures — the subject is always “people” — look like the kind that are taken on assignment for magazines or newspapers). At first I sent him pictures of the kind I usually do — very different from his. Recently though, I’ve gone back through my negatives looking for pictures more like those that he does. I thought this would help build a dialogue between us, rather than the usual 2 way monolog that most often occur in these kinds of exchanges. Of course you have to remain true to your own interests; but if you want to communicate you need to look past yourself a little. Don’t you think?
In your question you mention “portraits” I had done that were not really of people but of things you could see the “face” of a person in. In a woodland, a vine shaped itself to form an outline of the profile of a face; or the poster which had been partially pulled off a city wall, leaving parts that formed what looked like a face. I do like finding those kinds of portraits. Of course that can become a superficial game (find the hidden face). But I think that’s not what I do. I think that I make these kind of portraits because they are a substitute satisfaction for the universal need to interact with others, without experiencing that aggressive feeling I get when aiming a camera at someone’s head. I am usually as uncomfortable behind the camera as the person being photographed usually is in front of it. When I do photograph other people — & of course I do, often — it’s much easier for me if I know them personally. I’m more comfortable, feel less intrusive. As you might expect I have a great many pictures of my wife. And my son! — he’s been photographed since the moment he was born & right up until he left home for college.
And I have been taking pictures of myself since I started using the camera (see SHOTS self-portrait issue, enclosed). Mostly reflections, or shadow self portraits. Sometimes I use a self-timer & sometimes I use objects as “stand ins” to represent me. These kind of portraits are easier to do.
When you put all these kinds of pictures together — & you can add just about any other kind of picture you want — what you have & can’t help but having, is some kind of grand portrait, over time, of the person who made the pictures. In that sense people are always doing self portraits.
RJ: Is there still something you would like to ‘capture’ with your camera, but haven’t succeeded in yet?
Reply on 28-2-1999
(It took some time before I retyped Roy’s answer into my computer. During that time I received quite a collection of mail from Roy. Especially the photo-cards were meant to illustrate his latest answer. Besides that he also sent a copy of the magazine SHOTS that he was featured in. Also through his wife Martine, I get now and then e-mails to exchange the latest details of both our lives)
RA: Dear Ruud, The part that I’ve succeeded in “capturing” with my camera is of course much, much less than what’s out there; there are more subjects that are still “free” than that are “captured”. But that doesn’t bother me a bit.
I see photography as a means of noting down what I look at & see & find interesting. Put simply, it’s seeing things. And I understand personal photography to be an effort at accumulating those things seen, like keeping a diary. Ideally, all your photographs should make a pictured index of the contents of your head. When you have a view like this then you’re never finished photographing. There’s always something more (like the present moment, for example!).
Nevertheless, your question makes me think about how difficult it is to photograph –“capture”– some things. I think that “Nature” is one of them. (Because this whole subject is one of my pet peeves I have to be careful not to sound like a born-again religious zealot preaching on a street corner.) Nature doesn’t seem to be important to most people these days. Especially people in cities — the people I know. They are just not interested. It isn’t a “cool” subject, people don’t care about it & don’t know about it in any personal way. If it rains, carry an umbrella — that’s the extent of the city dweller’s practice & serious interest in nature. Or some people might watch a TV show because they like to see chimpanzees or cuddly pandas — their version of “nature”. Other people might spend their two week vacation “in the country”: This is the extent of nature’s intrusion into the timed lives of most people I know.
This indifference — this “who cares” attitude about nature is also prevalent in the world of “serious” art photography. It’s hard to find good nature pictures in the current gallery scene. Amateurs love to photograph their cats, & sunsets & “scenic views”. Sometimes these do come off as good photographs, but mostly they are pictures that follow a formula & aren’t interesting. Art photographers (like everybody else) aren’t much interested in nature, it’s not an “in”subject. Probably it would be more accurate, objective & fair to say that for every good nature picture you can find 1000 better urban pictures.
That’s because it’s tough to make a good nature photograph. One that’s good as a picture — good as photography — good at “capturing” the subject it’s about (nature). One of the problems is that both photographers & the photographic audience bring certain expectations to the idea of “nature photography”. When thinking of “city photography” people don’t only imagine huge skyscrapers, or crowded streets. Most people have individualized experiences of cities, sometimes very subtle experiences. The word “City” brings up many personal meanings, memories, ideas & reactions. Why then do people expect that there should be a lion or tiger or an elephant (or even their cat) sitting in the middle of a “nature photo”? The sky is nature. Water trickling in a gutter towards a sewer is nature. A mouse in a trap is also nature. You take it as it comes, as you find it in front of you in your daily rounds (& not only on TV or in the movies.) Why can’t you see nature out of the corner of your eye, or in a glance, or in passing, or while concentrating on something else — that is, see it in the ways that you see most everything else? Maybe nature should begin with a small, not a capital “n”.
When I was a kid I wanted to be a field naturalist when I grew up. Not the kind that adventures along the Amazon & discovers rare species in exotic locales. My ideal was a local man who built a small nature museum & preserve in the suburban town near where I grew up. He could name all the local birds, animals, trees, & plants. He could identify what weed was growing in a crack in your driveway. My interest was not the Wilderness, or Global Ecology — fashionable topics today with people who often can’t name one bird in their own backyard (except for the pigeon). When I look back I realize that as a kid I was interested in a kind of backyard, “domestic” nature (if I can use such a term). Now, what I would like to be able to do is make good photographs of that, photographs that “capture” & construct that idea of nature.
The group of photo/cards I’ve been mailing to you — there are a few more yet to come — are also a part of my answer to your question. The visual part. Maybe that’s the better part. Anyway, I don’t want to be too preachy, to sound like that street-corner fanatic I mentioned above; so now I’ll stop.
(Enclosed with his answer there were also two color-copies of “postal nature” which illustrates the nature on postage stamps and the ignorance of some clerks working at the postal office.)
RJ: Roy, Thanks for this very personal answer. I believe I should include the photos with the interview, and give the readers of this interview also the visual aspect of your work. Therefore I would like to end this interview with the last ‘traditional’ question: “Maybe I forgot to ask you a specific question?”
Reply on 6-7-1999
RA: Dear Ruud, You ask if there is a question that you might have forgotten to ask. Reading back over the interview, no unasked question has come to mind. I should say though, that I do have the feeling that I could continue, could keep on answering questions!
I also see that my responses to your questions were usually too long, especially the earlier answers. I wish now I could have been briefer & more precise.
There is something though that I would like to mention. As you pointed out in the beginning of the interview, my rubberstamp doesn’t say “Mail artist”. But if you’ve noticed — in the course of the two years of this interview — I did make a new rubberstamp for the back of my photo/cards. It reads Photomail – Arenella. I think that it was involvement in this interview with you that caused that shift, that put the “mail” in my rubberstamp. Also during this same period of time I was fortunate in meeting other mail artists whom I’d only previously read about or known only through their work. I thank you for your share in all of this. And I appreciate — because of this interview — having had the opportunity of collecting together some of my ideas & feelings and trying to make them clear for you. I think that the interview has been a very helpful occasion for me. Thanks….
RJ: Thanks for this interview Roy. Also for me it was a learning-experience!