Timothy Archibald is not only a great photographer, but he's also a great 'photographic philosopher' of sorts and a well of information and inspiration. With these interviews, I am always hoping to open new paths for people not only to new artists, but new ways of seeing and thinking. Timothy has provided a wealth of 'paths' in this interview and some intriguing insight into his work.
I am very grateful for the efforts he has made and for giving me the opportunity to put these questions to him.
Timothy Archibald's photographs have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, GQ, The New Yorker and Outside Magazine. His photographs are included in the permanent collection of the Catskill Center for Photography(Woodstock, NY) and The Museum of Sex(NY). He lives in San Francisco with his wife Cheri and two sons.
Lars von Trier added something called a “lookey” to his latest film, a “visual element that is added out of context to a movie”. Is it fair to say that a lot of your work is photographing “lookies” in real life?
I guess I’m always looking for something kind of unusual and aberrant that is found in something very very familiar. That combination worked real well in Sex Machines, meaning it was like finding this filthy disgusting sexual creation pulled out of your id, and finding it in a very comforting and familiar environment. I played with that pairing in earlier work, but it really came together in Sex Machines. As far as projects since then, the core seems to come from finding something very human that everyone can relate to, and combining it with something very foreign. Which is the same thing…huh?
"I just loved the idea that these artists could be so great at what they did, make powerful art and really own their genre, but the genre was so small they just weren’t household names."
I’ve always had attraction to artwork that looked naïve or innocent, folk art, comic book art, things that seemed to be dwelling in this kind of d.i.y. ghetto or something. Comic book artists such as Daniel Clowes, Peter Bagge and Ivan Brunetti have all been super big influences. I just loved the idea that these artists could be so great at what they did, make powerful art and really own their genre, but the genre was so small they just weren’t household names. I think it was Bagge that even referred to his audience as a small collection of drug addicts and perverts, many of whom live with their parents! Maybe it was Clowes who said that. They were kidding, of course, but more so they were just exaggerating to make a point.
With Sex Machines, I felt the machines themselves were the perfect folk art: they were innocent by design and seemed to tell us a whole lot of unedited information about their creator. The machines were enough, but then I needed to come in and try to make a pretty colorful photograph and interpret the people…but the machines alone were total folk art. So….Borensztein’s portraits always had the innocent folk art quality to them, as if he is just the conduit for this fascinating subject matter.
How much influence has your wife had on your work? (Is she a sociologist?)
Yah, my wife Cheri Stalmann was doing graduate work at UC Davis in sociology, which is what allowed us to move to California. She was into studying working class men who were married and were the primary caretakers of the children. The two of us have always been interested in men, women, masculinity, feminism, her in a more academic way, me in a more pop culture way. When she began her project she ran an ad in the newspaper seeking men who’d be open to being interviewed. She had this tape recorder that had this great detachable microphone on it.
I remember her coming home, us listening to the tapes and this microphone just picked up everything…someone opening the refrigerator, someone walking in the door…it was like a movie without pictures. I remember thinking that that technique was great: run an ad, gain access to someone’s life, and just spend some time letting them talk. I never had use for it…but a few years later when I began “Sex Machines” , I thought I knew the tools I needed to bring these people to life. And of course throughout, I was always trying to tell people that the project is Sociology, not Sexuality…its about the people, not their sex life! Really, it was about both.
"He was also big on teaching photography as self expression, not as a technical practice. That really was key..."
I got introduced to photography at age 14 by a photography teacher at a local college who thought it would be interesting to let a teenage kid sit in on a photo class, just to break up the dynamic and make it interesting for him and the other students. The teacher , Martin Benjamin, did go on to teach photography in China, he taught photography to mentally retarded adults, senior citizens…I mean he was into seeing what ways photography would affect different people at different points in their life. He was also big on teaching photography as self expression, not as a technical practice. That really was key, I believe, to making me see this as something that was deep and personal, something that could really be a life path if you wanted it to be.
And he exposed us to the work of people whom photography was clearly a path: Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, Walker Evans, Dorthea Lange, Larry Clark, even Witkin was getting popular at that time and we learned about his work. Being exposed to that work at that age…age 14 was super powerful. At that age you are searching, feeling confused and lost and dealing with all that being a teenager is. To be turned on to photography at that time, this thing that helped me learn about myself and learn about the world, was like getting a map or something. It was a set of tools that helped me navigate.
"The topic was always this double edged sword: it captivated and fascinated people, but also could easily place me and my work into some kind of literary porn gutter."
Yeah, once the book came out it did seem to me that most people got it and understood what I was trying to do. I was kind of happily surprised about how it was received. But with the book, there were other factors that helped set the tone for the project: the book packaging, size, print quality, cover design, and all the text. These factors all seemed to contribute to how the project was received. The project had more problems when the photographs were presented without text…just these kind of weird sexual things on the wall. But the book…it was just kind of clear that this project was trying to understand these people and showing them to the viewer in a respectful way.
But…I certainly had my doubts and fears going into it. Also, you must keep in mind that we are talking about something that is inherently funny and also has a sexual component to it. It would have been silly for me to expect the public not to laugh at what I was choosing to point my camera at. The topic was always this double edged sword: it captivated and fascinated people, but also could easily place me and my work into some kind of literary porn gutter. I just got used to the yin and yang of it, accepting the fact that it opened doors for me but also accepting the baggage that may have come with it.
And having read a lot of articles on the book, I’ve winced a few times at the mocking nature of the journalists involved despite your balanced presentation; have you identified with your subjects and felt the need to shield them from ridicule? And what is your reaction to these kinds of judgments?
Funny…I did wince a few times, but I think I just really felt when putting together the book, that all of these attempts to humanize and empathize the inventors with the interviews would really be lost on readers. I was expecting to be heart broken by some characterization of the book as just being a collection of penis jokes or something. So…when it did get reviewed and writers were discussing the inventors as being “oddly inspiring” and “beautiful tragic characters” I started to really feel like people were getting it. It was almost understood, to me at least, that every headline would have some type of mocking pun in it…things like “build it they will come”, and stuff such as that. But one of the early reviews had the headline “ Automatic for the People “. I met the writer later and asked him why he chose that as the headline, just curious to see what his motivation was. His answer was “ Well, I thought it was supposed to be about machines, but the book was really all about the people “. Answers like that always felt great.
We have a common inspiration in Studs Terkel who you’ve cited as an influence for Sex Machines. How well has your interviewing/writing in the book fared compared to the photography itself? And can you tell us about Terkel’s influence on your approach to the book and what you learned as a writer/interviewer during the course of your work?
Right. Studs Terkel wrote “WORKING”, this book I’ve loved since high school. In that book, he just collects interviews with people about their jobs and why they work, and it just somehow delivers these people directly to your cerebral cortex, you just seem to be able to picture them and bring them to life, just by reading their quotes. When deciding that the inventors in Sex Machines needed a voice, I just figured that was the way to do it…just to try to emulate Studs’ technique in my own simple way.
Another influential writer, oddly enough, is Adam Parfrey, the publisher of Feral House books. At the time I was working on Sex Machines, I was carrying around a copy of a book Parfrey wrote, titled Cult Rapture: Revelations of the Apocalyptic Mind. Parfrey’s book was a collection of journalistic stories where he essentially just went out and interviewed eccentric people he was interested in, in this very simple and familiar way. It just kind of had this feeling of spending time with the people and recording what they where saying…just letting them speak. Parfrey’s technique seemed very do-able, and I respected the end product he got out of it. And…he somehow was able to appreciate his subjects with an intelligent sense of humor. So, those two books I carried around while working on Sex Machines. The odd thing is that Parfrey later ended up publishing the book. And Parfrey’s now wife, Jodi Wille, was this book editor that I really felt the project needed to bring the text to life. So it was an odd collection of co-incidences that brought that book together.
I wasn’t really itching to have Parfrey edit the book, I thought his world view was just a little too dark and political, but Jodi Wille had edited a book titled “Starstruck” about the work of photographer Gary Lee Boas that hit the tone right on target. I had it in my head that I really needed her to bring the right touch to the project, edit the text and package the book to match that tone. Oddly, she did just that and really made the thing what I had hoped it would be but couldn’t make it be myself. In the end it was my project as much as hers, she was so involved in it. It was weird, because it wasn’t like I knew these people previously. It’s just like the project allowed us to cross paths. I just wish they made more money on it.
Esquire Russia approached you and several other photographers to browse through Flickr, find great work, and write about it. What did you learn doing this and can you share any of your discoveries with us? Also, what advice would you give to up and coming photographers out there in regard to the presentation of their work?
Oh, it allowed me to discover this phenomena that is Flickr, which was kind of overwhelming. It does succeed at creating this great and kinda intelligent camera club art photo community that seems to not suddenly become some porn house the way most internet photo things become. I was surprised at how good most of the work was….but I don’t really know what more to say regarding Flickr. I may need to pass on that question?
I really enjoyed your explanation of why a work by Ahndraya Parlato was a great photograph at Conscientious. Would you share another piece and explanation?
Oh, that was a great idea Conscientious had for a story….such an open ended question…”what makes a photo great?” Really, there is no one answer to that, so I had to kind of just choose one path to greatness to define. For me, at this point in my life, I’m so wrapped up the world of commercial photography, that I feel I’m attracted to the work of people who are working more purely, more outside any commercial or editorial marketplace. Now with the net, of course, you can access anyone…at least to see what they are up to. No question, all the photographers I love, I try to find out what they are doing and its like they are teaching, or working assisting someone else, or working for a big studio doing something totally unlike their own work. So my definition , on that essay, had something to do with the idea that I like photographs that really take chances, that reach out on a limb and don’t seem to fail…the pictures still succeed despite the odds!
"...a great photograph is a great photograph, and if it’s done without intention and done with a webcam or cell phone, I’m still good with it."
But I like a ton of things, from the work of Les Krims that was done in the 70’s and 80’s to the very commercial but still very imaginative work of Thomas Broening, the journals of Jonathan Saunders, and then all of this new amateur pornography people who shoot of their wives and girlfriends on cell phone cameras. Myspace self pics! I mean, I certainly am a fan of photographers who have intention, but a great photograph is a great photograph, and if it’s done without intention and done with a webcam or cell phone, I’m still good with it. I’m probably more of a fan in that case.
Are there any other art forms of interest outside of photography that you practice? Or alternatively, is there a discipline that you would like to learn? What non-photographic artists do you admire and/or inspire you?
Oh, I’m such a photo nerd. I don’t even really like to go to the movies. Music is always inspiring, but even that takes effort to discover and get into things. I got two kids, they are young, I have my hands full right now.
Sex Machine Diaries
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"The Fans" Photo Set