The eXTra finGer

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Interview with George Krause

q)please tell us a brief info about yourself.

a)I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1937 and attended the

Philadelphia College of Art on a scholarship. I received the first Prix de Rome

and the first Fulbright-Hayes Fellowship ever awarded to a photographer, two Guggenheim Fellowships and three grants from National Endowment for the Arts.

In 1993 I was the first photographer selected Texas Artist of the Year. My photographs are found in the world’s major museum collections, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the Library of Congress, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. In 1999 I retired from the University of Houston, where in 1975 I founded the photography program. I now lives in Wimberley, Texas with two dogs and five cats.

q)Tell us about your humble beginnings, When did you you first realized that you wanted to be an artist?

a)My mother and father wanted to be artists. My mother insisted I attend, at an early age (about five), a free art school in the neighborhood on Saturdays. In elementary school I was encouraged to draw and paint. I became quite facile. It wasn’t until I left art college at the end of my third year and entered the military that I began to really find my own vision.

q)What are your tools of the trade and why?

a)I have worked with almost every camera format. Most of my work is in black and white. My first attempts were in color in the late 1950s. The Museum of Modern Art’s attitude in the early 60s, in the days of Edward Steichen and before John Szarkowski, was that color photography was not “ART”.

q)Who or what gives you inspiration on your morbid art?

a)My father’s early death and my mother telling me that I was just like him. She predicted that I would leave home at 16 and be dead at 25. I did leave home at 16 and on my 26th birthday I told my mother how happy I was to have escaped her prediction. She informed that she had erred and that he was 27 when he died. I later learned that he had lived to the age of 29.

q)Is your artistic background self-taught or did you go to college to study?

a)I studied art from an early age and received a four year scholarship to attend the Philadelphia College of Art (now called the University of the Arts).

q)How do you keep “fresh” within your industry?

a)My work was first exhibited at the NY Museum of Modern Art in a Recent Acquisitions show in 1961 when I was 21. A few years later John Szarkowski included me in his first exhibition at the MOMA. It was titled “Five Unrelated Photographers” and consisted of Minor White, Garry Winogrand, Jerome Leibling, Ken Heyman and myself. I learned at an early age that fame and fortune are not as important as a lasting passion for one’s vision and the medium.

q)What are some of your current projects?

a)For the past ten years I have been working with a special light that I call Sfumato.

The following words were written by my friend Peter Ireland for a review of the first exhibition of the Sfumato series.

George Krause was artist-in-residence at Tylee Cottage in Wanganui, New Zealand for six months from October 1997 to April 1998. In March 1998, the Sarjeant Museum exhibited a series of 36 photographic portraits taken by Krause. Of these images he has written: “For many years I have wanted to explore an idea where the face is viewed as one would a landscape, a terrain full of peaks and valleys. It wasn’t until I arrived at Tylee Cottage that I found the perfect light for this project. As you climb the stairs and reach the first floor landing you are greeted by a small, strange skylight situated in the middle of the slanted ceiling. It is this slant and the thickness of the skylight walls with the sun moving from right to left that reveals the sculptural quality of each face in a surprising way. The position of the head is always the same, which allows me to concentrate on the collaboration between the subject and the photographer. These are images of the people I’ve met here in Wanganui. Some are new acquaintances but most are old and special friends. It is due to their kindness and willingness to help another work through a problem that these images exist. They have placed their trust in me and even though most of the results are not glamorous I see all these people and their portraits as beautiful.”

Krause’s phrase “a terrain full of peaks and valleys” is the key to approaching these sometimes formidable images. The post-Renaissance tradition of the portrait, representing, as it does, a faith that the head can stand for the whole and even convey the essence of a person, assumes the convention of chiaroscuro, the technical name for the effects of light and shade that define the features and the three-dimensionality of physiognomy. This convention typically assumes that the principal features will be, literally, highlighted, with secondary features in degrees of shadow, and so, the light source must be either from the side or at a 45-degree angle to the full face.

The Tylee Cottage portraits, by contrast, have the light source at the back, producing the strange sfumato effect whereby it is the principal features that are in shadow and the secondary features high-lighted. And such is the intensity of this natural Tylee light box that in most of these portraits the outer limits of the heads have disappeared, so that the unframed features float disturbingly in a suggestive and destabilized space. Conventional portraiture has been subverted in the way that Cindy Sherman’s work subverts identity, with the photographer here exchanging the role of portraitist for that of geographer and geologist. These images rivet the viewer in their combination of easy recognition with an uneasy sense of them being nightmarish maquettes for additions to Mount Rushmore. That they also simultaneously suggest tenderness and fragility is clear testament to Krause’s genius as an image-maker.

Peter Ireland

Wanganui, New Zealand 1998

I returned home from New Zealand in the spring of 1998 anxious to continue working with the sfumato lighting and further explore the portrait as a topographical landscape. So that I might work anywhere, at any hour of the day or night and in all kinds of weather I decided to build a portable skylight. Before I left Wanganui I measured the width, height and depth of the skylight at Tylee Cottage. To further intensify the effect of the light I put mirrors on the four sides of the new model and replaced the unpredictable New Zealand sun with a powerful strobe. To the original process- the use of a large format camera, 4”x5” black and white film I’ve added the latest technology. The negatives are scanned and worked on in the computer and printed digitally with archival-pigmented inks on large sheets of fine paper. This fantastic new medium allows me much more control and creative freedom.

q)Which of your works are you the most proud of? And why?

a)My images are like my children. I give birth to both and nurture them and hope they will do well. You enjoy hearing about their successes. But now the new work demands all my energy and concentration. I don’t really have one that I feel more proud of. There are past images that still stay in my mind but that is because I have not yet understood completely why I created them.

q)Are there any areas, techniques, mediums, projects in your field that you have yet to try?

a)I have just changed over to over 100% to digital. I have so much to learn but realize how much more I can accomplish with this new tool.

q)What do you do to keep yourself motivated and avoid burn-out?

a)I have never had that problem. Perhaps it is because I work on so many series and ideas concurrently. One series always dominates for a time or at least until I feel I have gone as far as I can with it. Then one of the other series calls out to me with new possibilities and I follow that potential.

q)how do you spend most of your free time?

a)I have great friends and spend much of my free time with them. I throw and catch a football (American football) three times a week and this helps keep me healthy and gives me energy.

q)What contemporary artists or developments in art interest you?

a)I have many friends who are well-known and successful artists. All their work interests me. I think we are all working in a difficult but promising time. Things are changing so rapidly that it is impossible to imagine where we will be in just the next ten years. I no longer try to make any predictions or judgements.

q)We really like some of your pictures, how can we get our hands on them? Do you sell them? How?

a)Yes I sell my work through the galleries that I have listed below.

Austin, Texas the D Berman Gallery

Dallas, Texas the Photographs Do Not Bend Gallery

Houston,Texas Harris Gallery

Milwaukee, Wisconsin the Dean Jensen Gallery

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 339 Gallery

New York City, New York L Parker Stephenson

San Antonio, Texas Robert Hughes Gallery

The following are some questions and answers from two high school students who selected my life and work as the subject for class projects.

1 Q- Can art be pure?

I find this a strange question and I wonder why you ask it. My little brain spins just thinking about it. Most working artists don’t want to weigh themselves down with such philosophical problems. They prefer to spend their time and energy making images.

2 Q- Is your photography for yourself or for others?

In my early days I accepted many photographic assignments, both commercial and journalistic in nature. I found this work easy, as I was very good at figuring out what the editors and art directors wanted to see. Paradoxically I found it much more difficult and challenging to make images for my self and therefore much more challenging and exciting. Many of what have proved to be my strongest and most lasting images at first were rejected.

3 Q- What are some of your favorite teaching experiences?

When I was a student, the most important teachers for me were those who pushed, cajoled me into wanting more from my work and myself. They would not allow me to wallow in complacency. I think there is an unwritten rule that says - the more talented the student the more demanding the teacher must be. I’ve tried to practice this in all the years I’ve taught. This and knowing that you’ve lit a creative fire in a student that will last them throughout their lives is for me the joy in teaching.

4 Q. What is your favorite photograph? (Yours or someone else’s?)

I don’t have a favorite image from all my work. Certainly that which I am currently working on demands all my ability and nurturing. I have met most of the living photographers and many who are no longer with us. Some I’m sure you would know and there are others that are quite obscure. I know the history of photography well and my favorite images from that history are changing constantly.

5 Q. Are you open to interpretations of your work?

All artists appreciate others interpreting their work. We work off of that. I would never wish to create a work whose meaning was so narrow and fixed as to having only one way of experiencing it.

6 Q. Who or what are your influences?

My mother and father (he died at age 29 and his death has had a strong influence) both wanted desperately to become artists. In their time it was much more difficult to pursue that dream. As a child, while though not an unwilling student of the arts and dance, there were times that I longed for a more normal childhood and time for friends. My mother in her 90’s still dances, acts and paints. Outside of family influences there were caring teachers all through my life and if I had to name a few artists I would list in painting Hieronymus Bosch, Vincent VanGogh, Albrecht Durer, Jan Vermeer, in photography, Andre Kertsz, Henri Cartier Bresson, Paul Strand

7 Q. Do you see yourself as an influence to other photographers?

Perhaps. It is still too early to say.

8 Q. Who is your favorite author? Book? Music? Play?

Again there are many. Off the top of my head I would list the writings of Franz Kafka, Norse, Greek, and Roman Mythology, the fourteen original OZ books by L Frank Baum, almost any fairy tale, I love to read plays by almost any playwright, especially G. B. Shaw, all the Irish and Russian and Scandinavian playwrights. I enjoy very much the history of cinema and consider myself a film buff. In music I prefer the classics, from the earliest composers to the present, followed by ethnic music such as authentic Flamenco, and early folk music.

9 Q. What led you to your I Nudi series?

In the 60’s it struck me as though every nude image was either an artsy Edward Weston rip-off or a centerfold. Quite by luck I happened to be visiting the curator at the Museum of Modern Art at the time the when the work of E. J. Bellocque arrived. These images made a great impression on showed that a nude could be much more than just a formal study or a pretty girl. These images were of real beings capable of a full range of emotions and individual personas and somehow the nudity emphasized these qualities. One could also sense the desire and feelings of the photographer for some of his subjects. I had only seen something like this in other mediums such as in the work of Edvard Munch, Paul Gauguin or Egon Schiele. With this concept in mind I decided to see what I could do with one of the greatest themes in the history of art-namely the Nude.

10 Q. As far as your recent work goes, do you think you achieved what you were going for?

No. I have never felt I achieved what I was striving for in any of my work. I hope I never do.

11 Q. Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for someone who is hoping to make photography a career.

No, I feel that would be presumptuous of me to offer such words. I do wish you great success.

12 Q. I have seen a lot of people offended by your work in class. What is your reaction or response?

I would love to hear just what it is that offends them. I’ve learned a great deal about our present attitudes regarding nudity, sexuality and life in general from these very people.

I would much rather speak with those who are offended or do not like my work than listen to those who tell me how much they like my work. I must tell you that the Saints and Martyrs series has disturbed and offended many more than all my other series put together.

13 Q. Do you still enjoy making images.

A strange question. I am slightly offended by it. Perhaps there are too many who make images for the wrong reasons or with out really enjoying it. Yes, even though I struggle and fail most of the time, yes I still love and believe I will always be passionate in trying to bring my vision to life.

1. Were you inspired by someone or something as a child that made you

interested in becoming a photographer?

My father wanted to be an artist but he died at the age of twenty-nine.

He and my mother were both amateur artists. My mother decided that I would

be an artist too. Lucky for me I had some talent and if left to my own

means I might have made the same decision.

2. How and when did you realize that you had an "eye" for things?

As a child I attended a free art school on Saturdays and was encouraged by

the teachers to continue my art studies. I was the kid who got through

school doing the murals on the blackboards in the classrooms for Spanish,

Algebra etc. I won a four-year scholarship to the Philadelphia College of

Art (now called the University of the Arts). In the first year I received

The Freshman Achievement Award; won the Print Making Award in my second year

the Graphic Design Award in my third. I spent the next two years fulfilling

my military obligations in the US Army’s Counter Intelligence. It was while

I was in the army and stationed in the South that I really became interested

in photography. When I returned to finish my last year at the Philadelphia

College of Art the school allowed me to take what ever classes I wanted as

in my absence the school had changed from an art school to a fully

accredited university and to graduate I would have had to basically start

over. In my last year I received the Drawing Award. I never did win the

Photography Award but that year the Museum of Modern Art purchased three of

my photographs.

3 What do you like best about being a photographer?

I choose photography over other mediums i.e. painting and sculpting as I

wanted to travel and see the world. Had I selected any other medium I felt I

would have been confined to working within four walls.

4. Who has been your strongest supporter in your career?

That would probably be John Szarkowski who was the Curator of Photography at

The Museum of Modern Art. I believe he was responsible for my receiving so

many of the grants that enabled me to continue with my work. A close second

would be Anne Tucker, the Curator of Photography at the Houston Museum of

Fine Arts.

5. Which alternative photographic process has been your favorite to

work with?

Polaroid Emulsion Transfers.

6. Do you have a favorite theme/subject to photograph?

My work is divided into five series- The Street, Qui Riposa, I Nudi, Saints

and Martyrs and the Sfumato Portraits.

7. Which photographer/artist has been most influential to you in your

career and why?

There are so many but I will list a few. In photography I would put Andre

Kertesz and Henri Cartier Bresson at the top because their vision and and

ideas opened the way for others like myself. In painting I would include the

artists of the Italian Renaissance, the Flemish-Bosch, Breughel, Cranach,

and Holbien, and Goya. Among the more contemporary artists I would list Van

Gogh, Gauguin, Schiele, Courbet, Seurat, Freud and many, many others.

8. Did you always know you wanted to teach?

When I was nineteen I taught two evening classes, one a drawing class at

Swarthmore College and I assisted one of my teachers in a lithography class

at the free art school I had attended as a child. The students were all

older than myself and I thought I would never teach again. About ten years

later I was asked to develop a photography program for that very same

free art school (The Fliesher Art Memorial) and taught the first classes.

That year I was working as a freelance commercial photographer and trying

to find the time for my own personal work. It was very hectic and I became

ill with a ruptured appendix and nearly died. I decided to simplify my life

and wear just two hats, that of teacher and artist. After almost

twenty-five years I decided to retire and devote all my time to my work.

9. What has been the most rewarding aspect of your teaching or

professional career?

I think I was an excellent teacher- one who tried to push each student to

achieve their greatest potential. To create a work that changes another’s

way they view their world is the greatest reward for an artist.

10. What piece are you most proud of and why?

My images are like my children. I can’t think of favoring one over another.

There are a few images that have become more popular than others with the

public. These are Fountainhead, Shadow, Birds, Newspaper, Swish and Turtle

Man. That does not mean they are my strongest work.

11. I am graduating in May of 2003, and I am still unsure of what I

want to do career-wise. What types of jobs would you suggest I look

into, and what types of jobs did you have as a young adult that you

were able to use your photographic talents in?

Almost any job can help you to appreciate the world you live in if you

approach it the right way. We were very poor and as a child I worked in a

toy factory putting wagons and bicycles together, and got to observe lots of

people while selling newspapers in the subway and shinning shoes. While in

college I was a busboy in several restaurants and did the pencil layouts for

the ads for the Yellow Pages Telephone book. After college I worked as an

assistant for many commercial artists and photographers.