DS: This DSI is with a visual
artist whose commercial work is well known about the world, yet whose work as an
artist goes well beyond the surface of corporate shilling. While primarily known
as a portraitist, his most famous series of photographs, called The
Descendents series, starts with a very simple yet remarkable idea: to track
down the descendants of a famous person whose likeness was captured in
paintings, and then to try to mimic that paintings setting in a photograph that
costumes up the descendant to look most like their forebear. In some instances,
the resemblance is uncanny. In others, the effect is marginal. Nonetheless, it
was seeing some of his work in a recent National Geographic spread that made me
want to interview the man behind the series (and we’ll discuss more than that
series and the art of photography), British photographer Drew
Gardner. Welcome, Drew, and thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. And, as
there is little information about you online, I hope this interview will satisfy
the queries of your admirers and fans, as well as people new to your work.
Let me quote from an online bio of you: ‘Drew
Gardner is an award-winning photographer based in the UK with nearly 30 years of
experience. After many years as a photojournalist, he now shoots primarily for
editorial and corporate advertising accounts, specializing in people and
locations. Drew has traveled worldwide photographing people as diverse as the
Bushmen of the Kalahari to the street children of Romania. He has also traveled
extensively across Europe and America photographing the zaniest Guinness World
Record holders. In addition to his assignment work, he is also currently
shooting a personal project called ‘The Forest.’ In 2009, he will release a
DVD that takes viewers to the sets of his ‘Forest’ shoots to reveal his
innovative lighting techniques. Drew’s web site is www.drew.it
and his blog is www.thedarkart.com.’
How did you first get involved in photojournalism, and what made you
turn away from it as a career choice?
DG: When I was 14 years old I used to be terrified of what I was going to do when I grew up, I really did not have a clue about what I wanted to do, then my dad bought a Practica camera and I was fascinated by making my own photograph’s, so I bought a Zenith Camera with my paper round money and just started shooting. The idea of traveling, seeing the world, and importantly making a difference by telling some of the more challenging stories in the world, was greatly influenced by the likes of Don McCullin and later on David Hulme Kennerly. Photojournalism became my dream and by the age of 16 I convinced the local paper The Spalding Guardian to take me on as a trainee photographer, getting around on my bicycle as I was not old enough to drive! That was in 1980. I then worked in the provinces before moving onto the national papers, and finally the Sunday Telegraph. I was lucky enough to be sent all over the world, covering the most remarkable stories. These experiences are a big part of whom I am today.
In 1999 I was sent to cover the Kosovo conflict, and for the first time ever I really questioned my role there. I was filing some great pictures but they were not getting used, the story was not being told as I saw it on the ground. All this was at great personal risk too.
It was not my first time in the Balkans but this time the sheer tide of daily misery of human suffering, watching a constant tide of ethnic Albanian refugees fleeing atrocities with just the clothes they stood up in became too much for me and I wanted out.
So for nearly the last 10 years I have been out of the photojournalism.
DS: To what degree has your ‘journalistic eye’ helped you in the corporate world? To what extent has it helped you artistically?
DG: Once a photojournalist always a photojournalist.
I still have the same core values and yes, it teaches you to be very self sufficient, making the very best of any given situation.
It has helped me immeasurably, because even in the corporate world you are still just telling.
DS: The bio mentions your innovative lighting techniques. To what extent does lighting play a role in determining the difference between a staged artistic photo and an unstaged journalistic one? What other things go into determining the difference?
DG: This is a very interesting question, in the past lighting was the preserve of the ‘staged’ photo but you see more and more photojournalists introducing their own lighting to ‘live ‘ situations. Not a bad thing but it does blur the line.
DS: I’ve read that you give lectures on lighting? This seems to be one of the more specialized sorts of lectures I’ve ever heard of. Is this done in conjunction with corporations, to better facilitate the advertising of a product by other hired guns? Or is this some sort of lecture where photographers (commercial and artistic) come to hear from you re: their craft?
DG: The courses can be a little misleading, in a positive way I hope, in that they are about lighting but they are about so much more. They are based around communicating with people to get the very best from any given situation. So many photographers don’t give communication and rapport the priority they should.
DS: Oftentimes, in the art world, regardless of the quality of a person’s work, if they are successful enough to make a living, or better, at it, they are called sellouts. Since you seem to have started in the commercial world, then migrated into the artistic realm, has anything of the reverse been claimed of you? Also, since commercialism is an inherent part of the arts world- i.e.- books, paintings, photos, sculptures, etc. are all bought and sold, why do you think some artistic types- especially those with a Leftist bent, are so set against the idea of ‘selling out’? And, how would you define ‘selling out,’ if not by commercialism? Is it a loss of ethics?
DG: I know what you mean. Look at Dali in his final years….
As for selling out? Some artists shout loudly about not doing just that, but then they do, consciously or subconsciously.
Selling out is listening to the voice of others and not your own true inner voice.
Being single minded is the biggest challenge, one which I’m not always successful I might add, but I try to be me above all else.
DS: Since your art seems to both defy conventions while subverting them (as in a number of the ad campaigns you’ve done) I think I will be a bit freer in my interview style this time. So, let me start out and ask a question that seems odd, but is one I’ve heard from many people. Is photography an art? I ask because many people will counter that it’s often luck that determines what makes a great photo. I.e.- there is Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange, these photos of Tiananmen Square, D-Day, and the naked napalm girl in Vietnam, etc. Now, these were journalistic photos, but there are also the cityscapes of Alfred Stieglitz, the retards of Diane Arbus, the celebrities of Annie Liebovitz and Richard Avedon, or the black and white landscapes of Ansel Adams. Some seem to be luck of the moment, or the luck of 1 photo in 500, whereas a painter has only one canvas, or a writer one text. In a sense, does the ‘art’ of photography (as is often said of filmmaking) come down to editing- pruning out the crap- more so than framing, lighting, texture, film stock, etc.? How much is, indeed, luck, rather than skill? The toss of a dart that luckily goes bull’s-eye?
Is photography art? It is if the viewer chooses to see it as such. I have grown
weary of such arguments and I’m happy for the viewer to take what they want
from the photo, any photo. Without labels.
Luck does play a big part in any photo shoot, even with the ‘greats’ no matter how much preparation has gone into the production.
I think that photography is about 5 percent of any photograph. The rest is you, who you are and how you got there in your own head.
DS: Define what constitutes a good photograph from a bad one. Give me the parameters. Also, what is the difference between a good and a great photo?
I hate some really good photos, by great photographers, does that make them bad?
A good photo just exists, a great one lives with you, never leaves you .
DS: As you are
as well, if not more, known for your commercial work than your purely artistic
and historic work, to what degree does ‘illustration’ come into play? I.e.-
in photos you have of Alice In Wonderland, the photos are clearly
staged, and staged in such a forced manner as to make the staging seem merely
the foothold into something deeper- be it the salesmanship or the art. I don’t
know the proper term, but those photos are certainly not realistic, nor
‘art,’ in the way one thinks of an Ansel Adams landscape from Wyoming.
Instead, they seem more like N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations than Andrew Wyeth’s
art. This is just a lay observation, but you seem to have many modes in your
photography. Am I on to something, even if my terminology is askew?
DG: Yes, you are on to something. There is nearly always a narrative, sometimes hidden. But the point is the staging comes as me telling the story that I want to tell, in a very personal and specific way that is very ‘me.’
I feel it gives my work its very own signature.
Even some of your Portraits series seem more like illustrations
than paintings- such as the one with tornadoes in background. Given that this is
a mix of photorealism and not, is there a specific term for such a piece that
DG: I try, as much as possible, get a very ‘painterly’ look so perhaps I’m failing? There maybe a term for what you mention but I try to avoid labels.
The piece with the tornado’s in the background was to publicize a TV program, it was a lot of fun but it was to a very specific brief, though we had a lot freedom.
It is quite funny, people ask me what sort of photographer I am and I never quite know how to answer…..I struggle with the whole label thing.
DS: To the lay reader, an artist who is great summons up images of a young Mozart, or some prodigy, for whom all the world is a plaything. Were you extremely gifted as a young child?
DG: I wish I had been! I feel that my work has only truly come of age in the last 10 years or so. I always knew what I wanted to do visually, I just did not have the know how to do it.
Also, for the record, what is your full name, where and when were you born
(rural or city)? And, what things about the home, town, schoolyard, etc., were
things that may have first caught your attention to want to be a photographer?
I.e.- did you always have a desire to ‘capture’ a moment in time that would
never be again? Or was there a different impulse that pushed you into
photography rather than music, writing, or sports?
DG Drew James Gardner and I was born in Nottingham, England.
Yes, it did originally start of by me wanting to capture a moment in a
photojournalistic sense but we often discover other treasures along the road
which we were not seeking .
When did your visual talent emerge- in school or earlier? Were you then, and are
you now, more drawn to the physical aspects of replicating realities or using
deeper ideas to foster your self-expression? I.e.- are you primarily a
‘visual’ man or an ‘’ideas’ man in your art?
As I have alluded to earlier I really am an idea’s man. I can’t stop them
coming…. they are almost a curse. A beautiful problem to have.
I ask because, often in cinema, the people who are visuals first seem to always
make bad films. The film director John Huston, is paraphrased as stating that
‘all good films start with a good
script.’ And I agree that cinema is
basically literature with pictures. But, clearly photography is not. Like
paintings, photographs must tell a tale or so perfectly capture a moment that it
is indelible. Ideas?
For me the magical part is the ‘back’ story behind the moment. Like the
amazing scowling portrait of Churchill by Karsh which only came about because he
snatched the cigar from the great man and made him scowl.
The story and picture combined are very powerful .
You have released some film clips online re: different aspects of your creative
life, so are you gradually heading into becoming a filmmaker? If so, have you
followed the career of Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who started out as a
photographer? If so, any thoughts on his two careers, and how photography has
affected his filmmaking?
I must confess to my shame I’m not familiar with the work of Nuri Bilge Ceylan,
but I will check it out. Stanley Kubrick started off as a stills photographer .
As a stills photographer you have more of an idea about the photography
required to elevate the moment. You are not at the mercy of your DP, you know
what IS in fact possible .
And yes, I want to be a film maker, sooner rather than later. I was at
the national records office today researching a remarkable war story which has
never been told.
I generally detest Postmodernism because it is based upon any number of outright
fallacies. But the two most noxious ones are the ideas that there is
non-representational art and non-narrative art. There simply are no such things
as non-representational art and non-narrative art. The duochrome paintings of a Mark
Rothko, as example, are not
non-representational. They represent quite clearly their colors. The fact is
that the ‘idea’ behind the duochromes is simply not compelling; nor is
‘art’ where one sees a dot on a piece of paper, or a piece of fruit rotting.
Anything else is imbuement, and if a work can mean anything, it means nothing;
especially if so easily replicated. This is why arts critics get so easily
fooled; as displayed in films like F
For Fake or
My Kid Could Paint
That. Similarly, these works have
simplistic narratives like, ‘Piece of
fruit, rotting,’ which clearly is not
deep nor exhibits any skill. People seem to, however, buy into the Intentional
Fallacy. Why do you think this is? And, are there examples of such frauds in the
photographic world? If so, how do their schemes and scams differ and converge
with those ones I mentioned?
DG: Ah the emperors’ suit of new clothes. We are all children at heart and none of wish to be the ‘stupid’ one in the class, the one who does not get it, so we frequently ‘go along with it.’
And yes, photography has its own examples of the very same. I don’t feel like a law suit right now so I will say no more. But they are not difficult to find….sadly.
DS: Back to
biographical stuff. Were you aware of your own creativity as a child, or was
that something you came to learn as your interests developed more?
DG: Yes, I was aware that I wanted to share my visions but I just did not know how to, I cannot paint or draw. So the camera rescued me.
DS: What are
your views on photography in the current day? Has the need for speed in America
and much of the West made photography seem a ‘dull’ art by
comparison to film or video games? Do you think photography has been neglected
as an art form, especially by modern critics?
DG: The ‘problem’ with digital photography in one sense is that it has become too easy to get an acceptable image. This has led to a collapse in the market. Photography has become undervalued. Yes, it is neglected by modern critics as I feel as has become ubiquitous.
DS: What is your take on critics? I find that almost all literary, film, and art critics, that I have read, are more concerned with their own ideas of political or philosophic art than they are with dealing with what is in front of them. People (critics included) a) cannot get off the subjective like/dislike axis in favor of the objective good/bad axis, and b) cannot help but imbue art works with their own ideas, often resulting in criticism of what a work IS NOT rather than what IT IS. Agree or not? Ideas?
DG: I often struggle with critics who are not qualified to comment one way or another but are all too keen dish out judgment without regarding the impact on the artist and the audience. And yes, all of us, critics or not bring our likes or dislikes to any criticism we make of anything. Our own ideas and tastes follow us whether we like it or not.
DS: In your youth, did you have adults or teachers who recognized that you were brighter than most other kids (as great artists are) and encourage you? Or did they not notice anything at all? Was their a Prime Moment, or a First Person who said to someone, ‘Hey, this kid has something.’?
DG: I wish there was but there wasn’t. It was down to me feeling away and following my heart. It really took me a very long time to realize my potential, if I’m honest.
photographers first captured your imagination? Has photography helped you
understand more of the cosmos, including yourself?
DG: I was inspired by Don McCullin and David Hume Kennerly when I was a young photo journalist.
Photography has been the making of me, pure and simple.
And yes it has helped me understand myself, mainly by introducing me to people from different walks of life who I would not have had the chance to meet. I have learned so much….
DS: Are you self-taught as a photographer? What advantages do you think the self-taught gain from this? What are the disadvantages? How do you think your art may have been different had you gone through a different ‘career track’ in the arts?
DG: Yes, I’m self taught. I operated on passion and enthusiasm for much of my early career. It gave me my ‘never say die’ approach. The disadvantage being I lacked the knowledge to implement my visions. If I had taken a different path I think I may have lost the passion through discouragement. I needed to find my own path.
DS: How do you think photography has affected your ability to communicate with others in everyday life? Or, are you simply more visually oriented?
DG: I’m very visually oriented but I need ‘sparks’ to set my visions alight. Meeting people and listening to them, and I mean listening to them, gives me so many of my new ideas, and helps to revive old ones too. I like to think that my photography has made me more open minded and empathetic.
DS: Often, one reads of great artists who are parts of cliques of other quality artists? Were you ever in such a group, or are you a loner? How do you think that your set of circumstances affected your development as an artist?
DG: Though I’m a very gregarious in my everyday life, when it comes to my photography I’m a real loner. Dreaming, visualizing from within, or from random conversations with non-artists. I never had the opportunity to work in a group as such, but never say never.
DS: How do you think your upbringing has affected your outlook on life and art? Oftentimes, artists who grow up in a particular place develop tendencies and outlooks influenced by their surroundings- be it the Outback of Australia, the urbanity of New York, London, or some other metropolis, or life in the mountains, or near the sea. The most famous example might be Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s notoriously dour take on life, influenced by the climate and seasonal extremes of Scandinavia.
DG: My parents are a massive influence on me. Working class, but always striving to give great opportunities for my sister and I. I carry their enthusiasm with me everyday, the passion for the possible. My formative years were in a rural town in South Lincolnshire in the UK, and that gave the inspiration to want to get out into the wider world as soon as possible.
DS: In the DVD
of his latest film, Three Monkeys, Turkish film director Nuri
Bilge Ceylan (whom I mentioned earlier) is interviewed and says something really
remarkable. He claims that too many filmmakers (and artists) in countries with
oppressive governments use censorship as an excuse to not be creative, thus
essentially ‘giving in’ and writing only moralistic political
art rather than using the limits as a way to be more creative. Thus why so much
writing in Latin America, as example, is so bad and laden with political
screeding. Do you agree? If not, why? And to what degree, if any, does politics
play a role in your photography?
DG: Maybe they do use it as excuse? But one cannot judge others too harshly who live under an oppressive regime. Making a ‘statement’ can come at a terrible price to them and their families, each person must reconcile this to themselves, not others.
Yes, I have experimented with politics in some of my images but I want my comment to exist in a covert way, not an overt way. My photos mean so many different things to so many people.
DS: Why do you
think so many artists believe that politics take precedence over artistic
DG: Because to many making the comment about injustice in the world is more powerful than the end result. I will never forget that Picasso’s Guernica was taken down from the wall in the UN when Colin Powell came to address the security council with the case for war against Iraq, as it was considered too contentious.
DS: I had not heard of that, and I doubt many in the USA had heard of that anecdote. Very interesting. While not overtly political, you do seem to have an inordinate emphasis on the historic in your work? When did a love of history first emerge in you, and when did it first converge with your visual art?
DG: As I say to my students ‘Love what you Photograph, Photograph what you Love,’ and I love history. In fact though I was not very academic at school I really enjoyed history, and I still do. It will continue to be a big part of me and my work.
DS: Are you a subscriber to the Great Man theory of history, or the idea that history is a tide that sweeps mankind along? I believe in a middle ground, that generally history is contingent- i.e.- the general trends are in place but most figures are replaceable. I.e.- remove Thomas Edison and a Nikola Tesla and some other inventors would have filled in his gap and life as we know it would be almost identical. But, there are a few individuals for whom there is no replacement. If so, who would you claim as an irreplaceable figure in history, and why?
Jesus. A cop out you may feel but he was all I could truly come up with.
DS: Let me follow up with that old chestnut. If you could spend an evening dining and conversing with, say, five historical figures, who would they be, and why?
DG: Napoleon, such self belief and passion, fragility and arrogance. Queen Bodicea, feminism a millennia ago. Charles Darwin, just to tell him about the existence of DNA. Shakespeare, just because; and finally Leonardo Da Vinci, a man for all seasons.
DS: To end with history, I’ve often argued vociferously against the notion that ‘art is truth,’ but journalism, science, and history are or should be about the search for truth. Do you agree? If so, what truths have you encountered in researching history that debunked some well held fallacies you had? What was it like to have to let go of your presuppositions?
DG: The truth is so easily lost in the mists of time, and there seems to be little appetite to re examine and revisit contentious points or even footnotes in history. From my time as a photojournalist in trouble spots around the world I have witnessed incidents being incorrectly reported or interpreted by journalists and these reports have become the official version of event.
There have been a few occasions where I have discovered something which I consider to be an unknown truth. Many years ago I ‘recreated’ a portrait of Mary Queen of Scots with the same type of dog, a Skye terrier, which was said to be found hiding under her skirt after she was beheaded.
DS: You place
great emphasis on technical craft in your work, and this is something that is
lacking in much art across the world. Are you a perfectionist? What pros and
cons does this have on your work?
DG: I strive for perfection and often fail. The journey and striving to reach the pinnacle which is important to me. Even in failure, the pain of failure but knowing why you failed is worthwhile. And the picture often works out better as a result, somehow.
DS: Auguste Rodin once mentioned that his sculptures were always there, and he just removed whatever material needed to reveal them. Do you slowly accrete ideas and images? Does a photo almost come to you fully made, meaning you then just have to shoot it, the hard work is done? Or do you create a set of circumstances where a ‘happy accident’ is almost inevitable?
DG: The photo tends to come to me fully formed…almost. Then there is the magic of the moment, the indefinable moment of unpredictability, in other words having bought all the elements together the unforeseen actually ‘making’ the moment.
DS: In a related vein, what do you think of the people who appreciate your work, but value it only as something clever, not aesthetically for its art?
DG: If people enjoy or appreciate my work on any level at all, even for the ‘wrong’ reasons, I get pleasure.
DS: Do you believe in The Muse? Divine Inspiration? I find that many artists use the idea of a Muse or Divine Inspiration as a crutch for times when their productivity is fallow. I call this the Divine Inspiration Fallacy. Any opinions?
DG: Yes I firmly believe in ‘The Muse’ I frequently never realize how important my Muse is to me until they have gone….then it is on to a new phase.
DS: Are there
any other arts that have influenced your photos? How and why do you think
they’ve had an influence?
DG: Music. I’m often influenced by lyrics which become the germ of an idea. They encourage me to think in a different way, I feel anyhow. Music motivates me to create time after time.
DS: On an Omniversica show interview with poet Fred Glaysher, he stated he believed that in order for change to occur in the arts a new master has to step forth and ‘bury’ the dinosaurs and phonies. He also stated that that’s the only way it’s ever been done. This sounds very much like Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I.e.- that new great artists are sneered at, then accepted, then canonized, just as scientific ideas are. Would you agree with this? If so, who are some photographers whose work has been ‘buried,’ and why did their work not last?
DG: The photographic world is littered with many great photographers who have been unfairly over looked and passed over, or more frequently not been given sufficient recognition. Ask many photographers and I think too many would be ignorant to Lartigue.
DS: I ask this
question of almost all my interviewees. I believe that artists are fundamentally
different, intellectually, than non-artists, and that the truly great artists
are even more greatly different from the average artists than the average artist
is from the non-artist. Let me quote from an essay I did on Harold
Bloom, the reactionary critic who champions the Western Canon against
Multiculturalism: ‘….the human mind has 3 types of intellect. #1 is
the Functionary- all of us have it- it is the basic intelligence that IQ tests
purport to measure, & it operates on a fairly simple add & subtract
basis. #2 is the Creationary- only about 1% of the population has it in any
measurable quantity- artists, discoverers, leaders & scientists have this.
It is the ability to see beyond the Functionary, & also to see more deeply-
especially where pattern recognition is concerned. And aPJo to be able to lead
observers with their art. Think of it as Functionary2 . #3 is the
Visionary- perhaps only 1% of the Creationary have this in measurable amounts-
or 1 in 10,000 people. These are the GREAT artists, etc. It is the ability to
see farther than the Creationary, not only see patterns but to make good
predictive & productive use of them, to help with creative leaps of illogic
(Keats’ Negative Capability), & also not just lead an observer, but impose
will on an observer with their art. Think of it as Creationary2 , or
Functionary3 .’ In the sciences, this dynamic is
applicable. When I interviewed Steven
Pinker, he seemed to feel IQ was good at predicting success in life-
at least socially, academically, and career-wise. But my 3 Intellects posit is
something I don’t think he fully got the point of. That is that creativity is
wholly ‘outside’ the axis of IQ. In other words, there could be someone with
an IQ of 180, and a Functionary Mind, vs. someone with a 120 IQ, and while the
180 may be better suited for test taking, the 120 IQ, with a Creationary or
Visionary Mind, will be able to understand concepts at a deeper level. IQ
measures narrow problem solving, but is utterly useless in regards to
creativity. To use an analogy: think of vision tests. In a real world sense,
this is akin to the Functionary being able to see on the 20/20 scale, while the
Creationary might be able to see on the first scale- yet only at 20/50, but also
be able to see in other light- X-rays or infrared, etc. Then, with the
Visionary, not only are the two sorts of sight available, but also the ability
to see around corners, through steel, etc. In a scientific sense, the
Functionary might be represented by your typical person working in the sciences,
the Creationary by someone along the lines of a Madame Curie, or Nicolaus
Copernicus, who can discover great ideas, but which are logical extensions of
prior paradigms. The Visionary, however, might be able to make even greater
leaps- such as Hutton reaching far beyond Bishop Ussher, Darwin’s and
Wallace’s ability to transcend Lamarckism, Newton’s development of a new
mathematics- calculus, etc. What are your thoughts on this, re: art and history?
Are there artists in the visual fields who might be considered visionaries? Who
are they? And, if you are copacetic with such a system, where on the scale would
you place yourself?
DG: I think to be a visual artist of any merit you have to be a functionary of sorts – you have to know your tools and media. But great visual art very often goes beyond this with pioneers redefining or at least modulating the ways in which their tools are normally used, to create impressive if not profound results. If you want to call this approach to art visionary then I would certainly say numerous visual artists can be placed into this category. From my perspective identifying a ‘visionary’ artist is to some extent a subjective matter – what is rubbish to some is art to another and what we accept as art profoundly changes over time. And by the same argument, I would hesitate to place myself on any scale of ‘visionary’ art. I would however say that to do my job well I’ve had to master the functional aspects in order to allow me strive for art that one might consider visionary. I would say however, that I bring a good deal of emotional intelligence to what I do and I think this enables me to bring a more subtle and human element to my work. This hopefully means my work communicates, to some at least, on a more implicit level than the bare faced functionality that is capturing light on a CCD.
DS: To return to the photographic series that first convinced me you were a figure worth interviewing, your The Descendants series; let me turn to another work of art that I think has parallels (albeit not immediate ones) to it, and that is the series of films by Michael Apted called The Up Series a set of documentaries for the BBC. Have you ever seen them, or even one? What are your thoughts on it as a longitudinal study of human development? How about sociologically? Do you agree with its epigraph, the Jesuit proverb, ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.’? In a sense, this is a shorter version of your longitudinal study of families across generations, since, literally, every cell in the body is replaced every four to five years and you are genuinely totally different; at least in physiological construction.
DG: Yes, I have seen the ‘Up’ series, very powerful. I have actually met one of the participants, Tony the taxi driver, and spoke with him about the impact on his life. I watch it and I see lives passing, something to focus the mind for certain. To an extent I do agree with the proverb but not entirely, we can all make significant changes in our lives, day by day.
DS: In this
video we get a brief behind the scenes look of how you went about
making the portrait of one of the descendants of Oliver Cromwell, the British
suzerain and despot. First, what was it that made you choose certain figures?
Was it import, admiration, or just the availability of a descendant?
DG: Firstly, they have to interest me. They cannot be just ‘run of the mill’.
Cromwell fascinates me as he started with noble intentions some would say, standing up for the voice of Parliament. We should always be careful before we label any historic figure a despot, his reputation in Ireland is particularly bloody, judging by 21st century standards? Yes, he was. But I’m prepared to say that no European leaders of the age would have or indeed did conduct themselves in a better way, that is not to defend him in any way at all, just that he is a well known ‘despot’ as opposed to an unknown one.
When all is said and done Cromwell became King in all but name and betrayed the people.
Availability is of course the other deciding factor. Direct descendants of the right age and sex are in fact very difficult to come by
DS: The series also includes non-Britons. How many do you plan to do, or will this become an ongoing lifelong project? If so, what impels you to do it?
DG: Yes, the series will include many non Britons. So far, only Geronimo, the Native American. I intend to stop at around 40 or so but I can’t see myself stopping, it is so interesting, coming literally face to face with the past. It is addictive.
DS: In this
blog post you seem to be trying to put together a television show on
the series. Is it something that would be a one shot? Or would it be sold to
cable television, like the History Channel or the BBC? And, other than the
obvious, to make some money, what benefit would such a venture have over just
DG: It is not about any financial reward I can assure you.
It is all about the journey, and that is what I’m hoping any TV programme or series would convey, my journey but more importantly the sitters journey and how being a direct descendant has affected them in their daily life and upbringing.
It would be of great benefit in bringing the series to a wider audience and reconnecting many ordinary people with their own family history
DS: In this blog post you reference a New York Times series of articles and photos, and do so with praise. Yet, this stands, to me, as a prime example of the dumbing down of culture. I’ve listened to a number of these pieces and they are so pretentious. They say nothing, the photos tend to glamorize nobodies and losers, and they really provide nothing of insight. It seems to idealize the PoMo and PC claim that ‘everyone has a story.’ Well, duh, but 99.999% of those stories are dull and simply not worth iteration. This series proves it. It’s a trite idea, but in the hands of a great artist it could be something. Earlier in this interview series, I interviewed a reporter who once wrote for the New York Times, Charlie LeDuff, and he wrote a book called Work And Other Sins that is everything that this series tries to be. What exactly did you find interesting in the New York Times series? Simply the photos?
DG: I’m not sure we are looking at the same blog post:
Michelle McNally was giving her view of the industry and photography as it stands, cutting through quite a lot of nonsense. I found it a very informative piece of commentary and I stand by my assessment of it. There is a profound lack of informed comment generally, so it is in my view to be welcomed.
DS: Name the work of yours that you consider the best, and the most important, in terms of your canon? And, if different, what defines the two qualities’ differences?
DG: I’m greatly enjoying ‘The Descendants’ series as I feel it will have a resonance long after I have passed away. But for me the most important thing is connecting the past and the present, bringing it to the notice of people who had not previously considered ‘Where’ they come from.
DS: In a related vein, do you prefer pretty or ugly or average faces- professionally and personally? Does an ugly person’s face really have more ‘character’? And do you agree with the scientific consensus that beauty is not in the eye of the beholder (attraction may be), and that it is merely the degree of symmetry that an object (like a face or body) has?
DG: This may disappoint you but it is how the inner person is in their own skin; conventionally beautiful or ugly. It is how they ‘are’ that is what moves me, intrigues and attracts me.
DS: I started
these interviews because so many interviews, online and in print, are atrocious.
They are merely vehicles designed to pimp a book or other product- film, CD,
etc. One of the things I’ve tried to do with these interviews is avoid the
canned sort of responses that most interviews- print or videotaped, indulge in,
yet most people find comfort in hearing the expected. Why are the readers and
the interviews so banal? Where have all the great interviewers like a Phil
Donahue, Dick Cavett, David Susskind, David Frost, or Bill Buckley gone
(admittedly mostly American tv personalities)? Only Charlie
Rose, on American public television, is left. Is the U.K. as bereft
of depth as the USA is? And, if not, can you posit why the difference?
DG: Television is not, in my opinion, in a healthy state in terms of who is watching and what they are taking away from it. We have a little more depth in the UK than in the US.
Banal interviews tend to be audience driven sadly. On the positive, though, radio is the last bastion with NPR and BBC Radio 4 as standard bearers in our respective countries. I don’t actually own a television, by the way.
DS: Let me end
this interview by asking of your own family. Are any other members of your
family (wife and children) interested in the arts? If so, how has their art or
opinions affected your work?
DG: My 7 year old daughter Georgie is evolving a very keen interest in the arts which I do my best to foster. She in turns spurs me on to greater heights, and to make new discoveries of myself and the world through art.
DS: Are there any other things in the arts or your life that you seek to accomplish? Do you feel that there is some sort of duty for artists to try and promote the works of other great artists? If not, does a great artist, or work of art, simply have to fend for themselves?
DG: All you can do is ‘do what you do’ and spread the word about other great artists, for the world is a richer place when we share.
DS: Thanks for this discussion, Drew Gardner. Let me allow you a closing statement, on whatever you like. I think that this interview will have a historical value that will only increase with time. Thank you for yours.
DG: I would urge anyone to just go out there and create, create something they love and are passionate about and share it with the world. Thank you, Dan. Drew Gardner
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