|Entre Vues : Frank Horvat - Eva Rubinstein|
Frank Horvat : You believe that everything that is shown, in every photograph we take, is the expression of something in our mind, conscious or unconscious.
Eva Rubinstein : I do, as long as the photograph is our personal work, and not an assignment or anything we did for someone else. We can't help it. Some years ago, a good friend gave me a book she believed would help me through a bad depression. It was called Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. It's author, Dr. Frederick Perls, held seminars, where people would meet and talk about their dreams, and he would ask them questions. For instance, if the dreamer had seen himself as a child, running away from something, Perls would ask him : "what were you running away from ?" If the person would say : "from the darkness" Perls would ask : "In your dream, what are you saying to the darkness ?" But then, and this was for me the really important part, he would ask : "and what is the darkness saying ?" And he would explain : "You know what the darkness is saying, because you are both the frightened child and the darkness, you are all the parts of your dream, you populated it with these images, which are really different aspects of yourself." I am convinced that exactly the same thing happens in our personal photographs. The things we react to, the choices we make, which lens, which angle, what we isolate from what, all these things say as much more about us as about our subjects. Everything is a self-portrait, or a piece of a self-portrait. When someone in a workshop says : "I want to learn how to express myself" I answer : "Show me how not to, whom else can you possibly express ?"
Frank Horvat : But a photograph is not like a drawing, where every line is the work of our hand. What's on a photograph is what we have allowed to come through that hole, by intention or by mistake or simply by lack of attention. Sometimes it is just like a noise that has nothing to do with our voice.
Eva Rubinstein : Nothing that we chose is chosen by accident. There is something in us that perceives a lot more than we are aware of. I am "talking with my right eye", of course.
Frank Horvat : With your right eye ?
Eva Rubinstein : What I am saying is more likely to be said by someone whose right eye is the dominant one - not necessarily the stronger or healthier one. Someone whose left-eye is dominant might say exactly the opposite. He might say that what matters is the structure.
Frank Horvat : Why right eye and left eye ?
Eva Rubinstein : It's a mystery. They are still working on it. The dominant eye, left or right, is one of the most important things in our psyche. It seems to be connected with the way we perceive and feel things, far beyond just "seeing". I am very strongly right-eyed. With my right eye I could take pictures while hanging upside down, it wouldn't bother me, because everything would be in its proper place, somehow. But if I look through the viewfinder with my left eye, I must have everything absolutely straight : verticals, horizontals, everything neat and correct. Sometimes you can hear a person talk about his family, or politics, or anything, and you can make a good guess as to which eye is dominant.
Frank Horvat : What you say relates to a major problem in my own life : I used to photograph with my left eye. Then, four years ago, this eye had to be operated, first of a cataract, then of some complications that followed. Eventually it was restored, but not completely, it is and will remain unfit to look through a viewfinder. So I had to switch to the right eye. In the beginning I was convinced that this eye wouldn't see and compose as well as the other - but it turned out that it did. Nobody - including myself - noticed any difference in my photographs.
Eva Rubinstein : It may depend an how extreme is the dominance. People who are ambidextrous do almost everything with both hands, except write. I could give you endless examples.
Frank Horvat : What I noticed in the beginning was that the right eye focused and framed just like the other one, but that somehow it didn't convey the same feeling. What it saw wasn't charged with the same emotions.
Eva Rubinstein : That's exactly it, it wasn't your "real" eye. I don't know all the implications, I do know they are very profound. I am now the only right-eyed person in my immediate family, my son Alex was too, and we always seemed to be on the same wave-length. We saw relationships in ways that were more emotional than cerebral
Frank Horvat : Actually what I noticed was rather the opposite : my right eye saw the composition, but was less sensitive to the feeling.
Eva Rubinstein : Possibly because it still sees through your original self. It does not feel right. It's not connected the way the other one was.
Frank Horvat : It may be connected now, nerve-connections develop. But returning to what we said before, I am not sure that whatever we show, in any frame, should be considered a self-expression. Many things happen, that we don't notice.
Eva Rubinstein : But that's just my point ! Don't we "notice" them at some level ? A few years ago I had a show in New York, of photographs going back as much as fifteen years, which I had never even marked on my contact sheets, let alone printed - things I had either rejected or passed by at the time. And now, suddenly, they popped out at me, hitting me between the eyes. I think of them as "flash-forward" pictures, the opposite of "flash-backs" - because at the time I took them they made no sense to me, they were out of context in terms of what I consciously saw or understood. I believe that we take in a great deal more than we know. So these images started making sense to me only years later, when I allowed my brain to catch up with my intuition. I had, after all, made those pictures, whether I was ready to acknowledge them or not ! Late in his life, when my father had to stop playing because he lost his central vision, he allowed RCA to release some recordings that he had made fifteen or twenty years earlier, but had not been satisfied with at the time for one reason or another. Every few years he would listen to them again, and veto them again. And then suddenly he would change his mind about one recording, then another. When I asked him why, he said : "When I recorded these originally, I did not like the way it came out, but if I were to play it now, that's exactly how I would play."
Frank Horvat : I have tried to go through old contacts, to see whether something new could come out. Most of the time it doesn't. Probably because I am obstinate in my bias.
Eva Rubinstein : That's your left eye ! I have done photographs in which there was an element that I don't remember seeing at the time, but without which that image would have meant less, or nothing. Like the one of the nun mending a doll, in an orphanage. On the right side there is a little pair of child's shoes, lying there in the shape of a cross. When I took the picture I didn't see them, but I know the picture wouldn't be the same without them. It's an orphanage, and the shoes are empty, in the shape of a cross ! I couldn't have invented it ! I must have perceived them subconsciously. It seems to me that it's not we who take the pictures, but the pictures who take us, sometimes I feel as if the image was grabbing me by the throat, and I had to respond in some way. Making a photograph is like recognizing some part of me out there, dream-bits, portrait-bits that finally make up a self-portrait. I'm bothered when people use the word "creative" when referring to my kind of work, I think it's more like interpreting the "music" that's out there, available to everyone - but interpreting it in my own way, making it my own. I can recognize my father's way of playing Chopin, I can identify Rampal on the flute. We photographers isolate things in a way that is our own, we put our signature on this specific way of seeing.
Frank Horvat : To me the main subject of photography is time, what a photograph conveys is not so much a statement about objects or people or places, as the feeling of a moment that was and will never be again. A photograph that could be retaken can't be a really great photograph. This is true of all photography, but particularly of your work : it gives me the feeling of a unique point in time, even when you show nothing but an empty room, to which you could return any time to photograph it again.
Eva Rubinstein : But in fact one never can. I'll tell you a story. Years ago, after a workshop, I got very powerfully involved with somebody who left at the end of the week, while I stayed on. I took one photograph in the room where we had been, just moments after he left. I was emotionally shaken, I had no tripod there, and made the picture at a quarter of a second, hand-held. A couple of days later I saw on the contacts that, not surprisingly, the image was "soft". So, in a much calmer state of mind, I went back to the same room with my tripod. Everything was the same, the light, the things in the room. The picture I made that day is perfectly sharp - and totally sterile. I have shown both versions to people without saying any of this, and they have invariably preferred the "soft" one. Surely because the sharp one is emotionally empty, there was nothing going on in me except trying to "get it right".
Frank Horvat : Are you sure the difference is in the pictures, not in your mind ?
Eva Rubinstein : I didn't realize a difference until people's reactions made me aware of it. And they couldn't even explain it, only one person noticed that one was sharp and the other not. But I think that this bears on my point that there will be a different response to an image where an emotional "payment" has been made. My favourite story about this particular image is this : some time ago I had a show of 130 photographs, this one among them. There were two people to whom I wanted to give a present of a photograph, so I asked each of them to choose one. Neither of them had any information beyond the place and date - I never "title" my photographs -. One person chose the image of an unmade bed, the other (a super-intelligent professor !) chose this one. I must have looked so surprised that she added "it makes me want to make love". At that I nearly fell over : the two of them had picked, out of 130 images, the only two, taken five years apart, where that had actually happened shortly before I took the picture. There must be something in that image that conveys the essence of that moment - but it's hardly the subject matter !
Frank Horvat : Couldn't one analyse it in terms of what is actually in the print ?
Eva Rubinstein : No ! There are still some mysteries, thank God ! Can you explain music ? If you could explain exactly how Mozart works, you would be Mozart. If there was no mystery, there would be no art. The fact is that sometimes something "works", even though it may be theoretically or technically unsound, because it carries the emotion lived through at the time of it's making. Isn't that what drove poor Salieri mad ?. But what do you see in these photographs ?
Frank Horvat : Quite frankly, if I had seen this picture all by itself in a magazine, it may not have stopped me.
Eva Rubinstein : But do you see a difference between the two ?
Frank Horvat : The difference in sharpness doesn't strike me. What I do see, is that one has been taken from a slightly higher angle, so that the edge made by the door seems sharper. In Barthes' terminology, the "punctum" of the photograph is this edge.
Eva Rubinstein : You react in a left-eyed way, but what you say about the edge is correct. I'd never noticed that before.
Frank Horvat : I can see a third difference, which may be the one that matters emotionally : in the original photograph the patch of light is more intense. Maybe this is what triggered your emotion. But why did your emotion pick this area ?
Eva Rubinstein : I haven't the faintest idea. The intensity of the light may also depend on the printing. All I know is that at the moment there was only my feeling, my sense of loss, of enormous involvement. But why did I photograph a bit of sunshine falling on a scruffy wooden floor, the bottom of an open bathroom door, the lower part of a bureau ? Why not the bed, the window ?
Frank Horvat : You felt this emotion and it was natural to release it by the taking of a photograph - you were, after all, at a photographic workshop. So you looked around with your viewfinder
Eva Rubinstein : I never look around with a viewfinder, I don't work that way. First something strikes me, then I go for the camera.
Frank Horvat : So you saw the edge of the door and the patch of light, your emotion recognized something - but your conscious self didn't know what. When you came back two days later, you didn't concentrate on the elements that were emotionally significant, like the edge of the door and the patch of light - you worried more about sharpness and other details, irrelevant to the emotion. So these irrelevant elements were brought a little into the foreground, just enough to weaken the significant ones. All this is quite fascinating, what we are discussing are the central issues of photography, the main one being : when to push the button.
Eva Rubinstein : And "why ?". In my workshops I ask "tell me about the pictures you didn' t take, and why".
Frank Horvat : What would be your own answer ?
Eva Rubinstein : Sometimes I know that what I see would be destroyed by the taking of a photograph. I may see a group of people in the street, a network of relationships which I may find extraordinary. But I know that my approaching it would make the whole thing disappear.
Frank Horvat : And if you could photograph it before it disappears ?
Eva Rubinstein : It would be like stealing. Sometimes I know that if I take one more step, all will be gone, I shall have destroyed their moment. And I decide that it is better just to have it in my mind, just to know I have seen it.
Frank Horvat : But if you could take the photograph without being noticed, as through a one-way glass wall ?
Eva Rubinstein : I don't know whether I would. It is hard for me to talk in terms of rules. But how is it for you ? Looking at your photographs of New York, it seems to me that the only times people appear in your photographs, they are completely unaware of your presence, they have their eyes shut, or are under a raincoat, or are wrapped up in plastic. You don't really confront them.
Frank Horvat : You are right. Even in the studio, when the person is aware and willing to cooperate, I feel as if had to steal the photograph. I get them involved into something, like playing a role, but what I really catch is not what they think they are giving.
Eva Rubinstein : I have trouble with the idea of catching : people are not for catching. This was my big argument with Diane Arbus, and also with my (and her) teacher Lisette Model. They both thought they had the right to do anything, to anybody, for the sake of their "art". I don't believe that, it may be my particular bias, my reaction against certain people in my life, to whom their needs as "artists" took precedence over almost everything else, whatever the cost to others. To me human beings are more important than art. And what I know about Diane convinces me that when she photographed these people, dwarfs, nudists, freaks, she always took a little more from them than what they had offered her freely - a little pound of flesh more - and this gave her power.
Frank Horvat : You may be right, but to me Diane was like a saint, and this justified whatever she did. But when I look at your photograph of this old woman, I can't help thinking that you must have some moments of saintliness as well, or you wouldn't have felt the right to take it.
Eva Rubinstein : This picture, for me, is full of pain - hers and mine. I'd been traveling, alone, for three weeks through the South and Appalachia, in an old car that couldn't even be locked. Late one night, in a tiny town in Tennessee, I carried all my baggage and equipment to the second floor of a rooming house (which was really stupid as I had had serious back trouble for years), and broke two vertebrae. Next day I had to drive back to New York - seventeen hours - in such pain that in order to hit the gas or brake pedal I had to lift my right leg with my hand. Somewhere in Kentucky it began to rain so hard that I couldn't see, so I stopped where I was, and found myself in front of a home for the aged. I hubbled in, hoping that they might have something against the pain. They didn't, but as I looked around I saw this woman and asked someone in charge if I could take some pictures, and got permission. It was hard to know how aware she was, one minute she would giggle like a child, the next she would howl. I did ask myself : "Do I have any right to do this ?" I don't like taking photographs of people who don't participate, and I may not have done it if I hadn't been in agony myself. But as it was I took it. Later I sent a print to the person who runs the place, to see if I could get a release from the woman's family. They not only gave me a release, but it seems that one of them said : "Yep, that sure was old Mathilda". She had died soon after I was there. I know I took that picture with respect, although I had no way of letting her know that. She was the very personification of Dylan Thomas' poem to his dying father "Do not go gentle into that good night - Rage, rage against the dying of the light".
Frank Horvat : So it was a moment of saintliness.
Eva Rubinstein : I don't really understand what you mean by that. I know nothing about saintliness - but I believe that you have to give at least as much as you take.
Frank Horvat : It shows in some of your portraits, in the way people look at your camera, as if they expected you to caress them.
Eva Rubinstein : Every portrait I take should have that quality, because that is what I am doing, in a sense. I don't want my camera to be a tool of power or agression. I assume that you will edit this tape, there are things that I would like to say, but I don't know how they may sound - For instance, I was told once that I made love "like a man", and I said : "no, I make love like a person". He didn't mean that I was particularly agressive, just that he wasn't used to a woman participating. But what happens for me - and the same thing happens when I photograph someone - is that a part of me almost becomes the other. After I have photographed the way I like to, I feel as I might if I had been making love all day, marvellous and exhausted and wanting to collapse on the floor in a heap. That's why I can't photograph just anybody, and why it's so hard to photograph people on assignment, it's like going to bed with someone not of my choosing. And there are times when I would like to make the camera disappear, to make photographs with my eyes, with my body. Photographing someone is very much like making love, sometimes I find myself trembling like a leaf. I have a friend, also a photographer, for whom I had a very strong feeling which I had no intention of pursuing. But I did ask if I could do a portrait of him, and while I was doing it, he said : "I have never before seen anyone photographing , where the camera actually seems to be an obstacle". Which, of course, is exactly what it was.
Frank Horvat : One of my waking dreams was to have an eye removed and a camera put in its place - that was before I had eye operations -
Eva Rubinstein : I have been saying this for years. To blink, and out comes a finished print.
Frank Horvat : For me too photographing can be sensual and sexual. But for you it is like caressing someone who looks at you, while for me - did you read that Japanese novel - I think it's called "Sleeping Beauties" -? It's about a brothel for old men, they spend the night with girls who have been put to sleep, but they are not allowed to penetrate them.
Eva Rubinstein : An unthreatening situation, they don't have to perform, they are not judged.
Frank Horvat : It's one of the sexiest books I have read.
Eva Rubinstein : For a man. It's a man's idea of what is sexy.
Frank Horvat : My photographs are - in a sense - just like that. You should understand this, didn't you say that you make love like a man? Wouldn't you like to photograph people who are asleep?
Eva Rubinstein : I have thought of it a few times, and even asked permission in advance, but I never did it. It would be like using the person as an object, and this turns me off. I cannot imagine doing things that the other person does not react to, any more than I would want to make love to objects. And, please remember, I did not say that about myself ! The person who said it to me, years ago, was a "macho" type, in the worst sense.
Frank Horvat : Sometimes I wonder whether the most beautiful moments in love - and in photography - could take place without some part of misunderstanding, or at least of illusion.
Eva Rubinstein : I don't think so. Maybe I've have had too many illusions imposed on me, too many people seeing me as something I wasn't. This is terribly destructive, though sometimes it may be tempting to go along with the illusions, or easier, or flattering. But the danger is that in the end you may have a hard time finding out who you really are. I don't want this done to me, and I wouldn't want to do it to others.
Frank Horvat : But isn't some illusion essential to love? And to photography as well? Stealing a photograph from people can be like caressing them in a dream. As if they were asleep in my dream - and as if their waking up and looking back could brake my dream.
Eva Rubinstein : You are protecting yourself. Because you know that identifying yourself with another person is a risky business.
Frank Horvat : When I photograph people in the street, and they look back, I just turn away the camera and walk off. It's not that I am afraid of them, or that I don't want to identify myself with them. It's as if I could see them only as long as they don't see me. The one-way glass wall.
Eva Rubinstein : You feel that you have the power only as long as you do the deciding. When they look back, they are calling something out of you, which you may or may not want to give. I have trouble, now, doing pictures of people in the street. Maybe it is simply out of fear of getting caught, although I'd rather think that it is because I don't want to take something from them without their knowing it - but one can never be sure of one's motivations. A few years ago, I was walking down Nineteenth Street, there was a rather heavy black woman, with a white cap on her head, sleeping on the sidewalk in front of a closed store. It had one of those corrugated metal things that come down, with an illegible scribble in white paint. I had a terrible urge to make a photograph, without really knowing why, I had never wanted to photograph someone like that before. I suddenly found myself kneeling on the sidewalk, very slowly clicking a few frames, taking a deep breath, getting up and walking away. Almost as if I had to risk her waking up and seeing me. But somehow I couldn't take that picture any other way, not just because of the angle, for that I could have squatted, but I had to kneel
Frank Horvat : It certainly was a stolen photograph, "une image à la sauvette". I always feel a little pang of bad conscience when I work that way, though at the same time I enjoy it. It's one of the reasons why I prefer to do street photography in New York when the weather is either painfully hot or painfully cold : I am begging for punishment.
Eva Rubinstein : If I hadn't broken my back that day I took the old woman in Kentucky -
Frank Horvat : - you wouldn't have felt the right to take it.
Eva Rubinstein : I still don't know if I had the right. But at least I know that I didn't take it easily. Of course the way I felt didn't affect her, she didn't know or care about my pain.
Frank Horvat : Rather than "bad conscience" I should have said "I feel ill at ease" : when these shapes in the viewfinder, that I am trying to focus and to compose and to fit into my story, suddenly lift their eyes at me, they make me feel as if I had to live up to some expectation that has nothing to do with my purpose.
Eva Rubinstein : That's what I've been talking about all along. That's all the difficulty and the challenge and the battle : to look through this mechanical thing, these bits of glass and metal, at someone. And not lose the sense that this "shape" is a human being. That's why I have to "risk myself out". To make up for this bit of metal, this box, these mechanics. Otherwise it would just be too unfair.
Frank Horvat : One could say that there is always a glass wall : the viewfinder is a glass wall.
Eva Rubinstein : That's exactly the point : it stands between you and reality, it can make you feel disconnected. That is the worst danger of being a photographer, that's why I hate the actual camera so much. I felt this very strongly once, in a potentially dangerous situation in Northern Ireland, tear-gas and rock throwing and rubber bullets (which by the way are six inches long !) and I was really quite scared, but when I looked through the viewfinder it was suddenly as if I were looking at a television screen, and I was less frightened. Another time was during the birth of my second child, there was a big mirror over my bed, so that the mother could watch the birth. Naturally I started to watch, and waited for something to happen up there, to the point that I lost track of my breathing and concentration, and forgot it was me I was watching. I became disconnected from my own birth-giving. So I asked them to take away the mirror, and went back to my work.
Frank Horvat : The difference between you and me is that I try to create this disconnection. It's the difference between a romantic approach and a classical one.
Eva Rubinstein : I agree with you, in the true, original sense of those words. What is happening in this conversation is that you are telling me who you are, and I am trying to tell you who I am. When I photograph, especially people, I would like to have the kind of relationship with my subject that my father had with the music he played. I always felt that he became the music, and possibly he "performed" elsewhere more than at the piano. There he had a quality I can only call "pure" : respect, honesty, simplicity. A human, personal relationship with every note he played, never pulling the music out of shape for some effect, but always with a profound sense for the form that held it all together. It was very moving, because in spite of all his control and his technique, one felt that at the same time he was open and vulnerable. I know that in the photographic situation we always have that advantage, that five percent edge, because we are the ones who decide when to push the button. But what I try to do, and what I wish I could do more, is to get as close as possible to a fifty-fifty situation - although I know that fifty-fifty is impossible - but maybe fiftytwo-fortyeight -. When I say "identifying myself with someone", it does not mean only recognizing something of myself in him, it means coming out of myself, to some half-way point, in order to help him come out, to the point where we can meet. The photograph is the result of this meeting. For me it's a two-way thing, like an electrical charge, if one wire is dead nothing lights up. If you don't make yourself vulnerable, to the same extent that you want the other person to be vulnerable, you have no right. It becomes a voyeur's pleasure, something that gives you a sense of power at the expense of someone else's privacy. When I took that picture of the woman sleeping in the street, and found myself kneeling, this was my way of showing that I did not want that power, I took the risk of looking stupid, or worse : that she would wake up and be angry. But there was no other way. And somehow I think that these feelings end up in our images, and even people who don't know us can "read" them.
|New York, April 1987|
|Frank Horvat Photography
Entre vues : Frank Horvat - Eva Rubinstein