This interview was originally published in SeeSaw Magazine.

ASc = Aaron Schuman
ASo = Alec Soth

ASc: To start, could you please discuss your earliest experiences with photography? What drew you to the medium; what inspired you; what purpose do you think it serves, what do you love about it, and what frustrates you most about it?

ASo:  I went to school to be a painter, but I soon realized I wasn’t very good.  While in school, I attended a lecture by the photographer, Joel Sternfeld.  In one slide he pointed out his van, the van he had used to traverse America.  Something clicked.  I realized that was what I wanted to do.  This sort of boyish wanderlust is common in America, but it was new to me.

     I fell in love with the process of taking pictures, with wandering around finding things.  To me it feels like a kind of performance.  The picture is a document of that performance.  But what function does that serve?  This is the problem with work like mine, that is more lyrical than documentary.  Like poetry itself, it is pretty much useless.  Also like poetry, the audience for this type of work usually consists of other practitioners, other photographers (actually a rather large audience).  It’s frustrating.  What really frustrates me is that photography is not very good at telling stories.  Stories are so satisfying.  Novels and movies satisfy, but photographs often leave me feel like something is missing.

ASc:  For me, the best photographs always inspire curiosity, rather than satisfy it.  I think that this ambiguity is one of the most thrilling aspects of the medium.  A photograph is only a minute fragment of an experience, but quite a precise, detailed, and telling fragment.  And although it might only provide little clues, the photographer is telling us that they are very important clues.

     Of course, photographs can succeed in telling stories when they are collectively put into a narrative sequence, like in a film, or grouped into “chapters”, like in a novel.  But it seems to me that, in Sleeping by the Mississippi, you are trying to get away from overt sequencing, away from a clear narrative.  Instead, like in a dream, you provide the viewer with a scattered assortment of fragments, which they can try to make sense of afterwards.  So, my question is, would you prefer that the viewer regarded each image in Sleeping by the Mississippi individually, like a book of collected poems, or would you prefer that the entire body of work were considered a single unified whole, as in a film, a novel, or even a lengthy dream?

ASo:  Definitely the unified whole.  Years ago I was working for a small town newspaper as a photographer.  There was this annual contest where all of the small newspapers would submit their best photos for a national award.  Although I was mostly photographing ribbon cuttings and parades, I worked so hard to get good pictures.  I never won an award.  One year, our crusty old sports writer came upon an accident where an automobile ended up in a tree.  Using a disposable camera, he snapped a picture and won the big award.

     The lesson I learned is that great pictures are all about luck.  And anyone can take a great picture.  But very few people can put together a great collection of pictures.  It is incredibly difficult to put these fragments together in a meaningful way.  And this is my goal.  Along the way, of course, I hope to make great individual images.  But the art, for me, is in the collection and interplay of images. 

ASc:  Many of the most striking images in Sleeping by the Mississippi were made in the American Midwest.  Looking through the book, I realized that there is very little precedence for photographing the Midwest with such enthusiasm.  Since the nineteenth-century, the Midwest has often been passed over by photographers in search of a “vision” of America. Instead, they often rush through it on they’re way to the mythical West (I’m thinking of everyone from Timothy O’Sullivan, to Ansel Adams, Robert Adams, and so on), or they head to the more “soulful” Deep South.  Why do you think so many photographers have shied away from the Midwest, and what specifically drew you to spend so much time there? 

ASo:  This is a terrific question.  The obvious reason that I’ve photographed the Midwest is that I live there; in Minnesota.  So I have a feeling for the place.   But I can understand why it has been passed over.  The Midwest isn’t exotic.  And photographers (myself included) are attracted to the exotic.  Middle sometimes means bland.  Most U.S. newscasters train their voice to have Midwestern accent, a kind of non-accent.  Of course, when you get involved in the Midwest, there are a lot of interesting nuances.  But it isn’t obvious. The Midwest doesn’t have the grandeur of the West or the exoticism of the South.  This was one of my favorite things about working along the Mississippi.

ASc:  Could you discuss your relationship with the Mississippi River?  What did it mean to you before you pursued this project, and having completed this body of work, what have you learnt about it?

ASo:  I’ve been photographing along the Mississippi since I was in college.  It runs right through my town and is an obvious path to follow.  I began to think that the river itself could function as a metaphor for that kind of wandering.  If you look at a map, the river doesn’t go strictly north to south.  It carves this crazy path all over the place.  That is really what I wanted to do…wander.  Of course, this is a huge part of the mythology of the river; Huck Finn and all of that.  One of the pictures I made was of Charles Lindbergh’s boyhood bed, on the porch of a house overlooking the river.  It seemed so poignant to me.  In Lindbergh’s autobiography he wrote about lying in bed, listening to planes overhead.  And he mentioned that he and his father had considered making a journey down the river by boat.  The river lures dreamers.

     I learned that, once a thriving source of the American economy, the river is now a worn and faded place.  But those that remain often make really creative and peculiar lives for themselves.  Our vision of America is so shaped by television and movies.  All we see are Hollywood starlets and New York cops.  We sometimes forget that there are whole other lives being lived in the middle of America.  And some of these lives are really inspiring.

ASc:  What I find especially interesting about your portraits, is that, as a photographer, you were naturally drawn the most “exotic” characters—evangelists, erotic masseurs, prostitutes, murderers, transvestites—but somehow you managed to convey their normalcy, their dignity, their general sense of humanity.  Instead of exploiting their quirks, turning them into specimens of weirdness or extremity, you provide a much more respectful and independent viewpoint; the viewer is encouraged to empathize with the subjects, rather than stare at them like freaks in a sideshow.  Are you actually using a kind of “newscaster non-accent” yourself, normalizing the exotic, rather than exoticing the normal?

ASo:  The whole of issue of whom I photograph, and how I photograph them, makes me uncomfortable.  In making a portrait, I am indeed “objectifying” my subject.  There is something unpleasant about all of this.  And if I spend too much time analyzing it, I’d probably just take pictures of flowers.  The one thing I will say is that I truly try to look at people optimistically, even with love.  This is actually easier to do with strangers than it is to do with people you know well. 

ASc:  Photographers such as Eugene Atget and Walker Evans have often been celebrated because of their seemingly “objective”, or “deadpan” approach—what I recently saw described as their sense of “magical detatchment”.  But your photographs feel less distant, like you’ve openly revealed and invested a bit of yourself in each image without being ashamed of it, whether it is a sense of humor, sadness, empathy, or admiration.  I wonder if this excites you, that you’ve managed to successfully put a part of yourself in these images without offending your audience?

ASo:  Yes!  This is exactly what I want.  I see most photography existing on a spectrum with the science on one end and the poetry on the other.  Photography is very good at science.  It is, after all, a scientific tool.  And I’m a fan of much of the work that exploits the camera’s objective abilities.  But I’m also getting a bit worn down by that methodology.  Science is great, but sometimes you want to see some passion.  When I teach, it seems like every student wants to do some sort of typology.  I just want to shake them and tell them to photograph whatever they want.  I tell them to pretend that they have a museum in their basement.  It is locked and they are the only person with a key.  I tell them to close their eyes and imagine what pictures they see down there.  It can be anything, just be honest. Then make those pictures.

ASc:  I understand that you never intended Sleeping by the Mississippi to be a social document. But grouped together, these images inevitably comment on the people, communities, and environments that you photographed.  I mean, it even attracted the attention of Magnum, one of the most influential social-documentary establishments in the world.  Are you comfortable with your audience coming away from the pictures feeling that they’ve got a better understanding of your subject matter, or would you prefer that they refrained from making such assumptions?  Also, could you possibly discuss your reaction to being nominated to Magnum; how do you feel that you fit in with the agency’s history and its current output, and has this changed your work in any way?

ASo:  I’m not entirely comfortable with this project being described as a social document.  This is why it is titled “Sleeping by…”;  I was trying to suggest that this was more internal and dream-like.  Of course, as you say, the pictures do indeed comment on the people and places I photographed.  And thus it is a kind of document.  But there are just so many gaps.  I was shaping my own river.  This is what photographers usually do, right?  They create their own vision.

     You are not alone in questioning why I’ve developed a relationship with Magnum.  As you say, Magnum is thought of as the institution for social documentary photography.  And certainly Robert Capa built Magnum with this goal.  But there was always a tension…a straining for the personal voice to emerge.  Cartier-Bresson was a co-founder and was deeply influence by surrealism.  Capa famously told Cartier-Bresson: “Don't keep the label of a surrealist photographer.  Be a photojournalist. If not you will fall into mannerism.  Keep surrealism in your little heart, my dear.  Don't fidget.  Get moving!”

     I think this is great advice.  I’m grateful to have Magnum pushing me out into the world to make pictures.  Right now I’m on a Hopi reservation working on a job I got through Magnum, and I’m working in a documentary fashion.  I’m not doing “Sleeping by the Reservation.”  I’m able to separate the personal projects from the assignment work.  But hopefully, I’ll still find my own eye in this place.  This is the thing about Magnum.  Over the years, it has attracted so many great, distinctive visions.  Many people only think of the war photographers, and that tradition is fantastic.  But there are so many others. 

ASc:  Sleeping by the Mississippi is both sequenced and edited very effectively.  Furthermore, you have managed to successfully group together many “genres” of photography—landscapes, still-lifes, interiors, portraits, and so on—something that holds great precedent (I’m thinking of Walker Evans or Paul Strand), but is a feat which has rarely been attempted in recent years, as certain pressures have encouraged photographers to become increasingly specialized.  Could you please discuss the sequencing and the editing of your book? 

ASo:  When Evans and Strand were working, there was no marketplace for photography.  There weren’t many collectors or big grants.  Free of that, they photographed whatever they wanted to photograph.  Once you have a market, you are expected to have a trademark.  And so you find these people photographing the same thing the same way, year after year.  Grant funding also encourages this kind of repetition.  When you ask for money, the funders want you to tell them what you are going to photograph.  They want a simple answer.  They don’t want you to say you are going to wander around and photograph whatever catches your eye.  Interestingly, this is more or less what Robert Frank wrote for his Guggenheim fellowship that led to The Americans.

     I really tried to follow Frank’s model for finding and sequencing pictures.  Frank found the mood and motifs, but didn’t repeat it to death.  His sequencing functions as a kind of rhythm.  It carries you through the book.  He repeats certain themes, but keeps moving.  The structure really is based on poetry.  It is not based on making a trademark.  I love this way of working.  I don’t want to have to photograph water towers or Weimereimers year after year. 

ASc: In Robert Frank’s Guggenheim proposal he writes that his intention is:
“…To photograph freely…[to make] a broad, voluminous picture record of things American, past and present…things that are there, anywhere and everywhere—easily found, not easily selected and interpreted…The material is there; the practice will be in the photographer’s hand, the vision in his mind.  One says this with some embarrassment but one cannot do less than claim a vision if one is
to ask for consideration.”
I know that this is a very difficult, and possibly annoying question, but would you claim to have “a vision”, and if so, could you characterize it?

Aso:  I’ve actually quoted that proposal a number of times in hopes to justify my own vague ambitions.  And while his comment about “vision” is indeed embarrassing, I also agree with it.

     You ask me if I have a vision. While this isn’t an annoying question, I am going to give an annoying answer: That is for you to decide.

ASc:  At the end of Sleeping by the Mississippi you provide selected notes for some images, which allows the photographs to speak for themselves, but then encourages the reader to return to these images again, after learning a bit more about them.  Firstly, could you provide a few notes about Charles and Crystal?  And finally, could you elaborate upon your experiences with Sunshine, and at Sugar’s?

ASo:  As I mentioned before, I hunger to tell stories.  But it is dangerous.  Words can easily ruin pictures.  I wrote the selected notes the night before the book layout was finalized.  I wanted to share some stories, but only as tiny footnotes for the truly curious.

     To find pictures, I just try to stay attentive to my curiosity.  If something makes me turn my head, I try to follow up on that. The picture of Charles came about while I was driving through Vasa, Minnesota.  I saw a peculiar house from the road.  I drove up and knocked on the door.  A woman told me that her husband Charles had built the house.  She explained that Charles was a bit of a crazy dreamer.  (She complained that he’d moved the stairwell three times).  Charles soon emerged.  He took me on a tour.  We climbed a ladder to the 4th story, which was really just one small room defined entirely by windows.  He called it his cockpit.  He told me that he and his daughter built model airplanes in this room.  The room was too small to photograph, so I took Charles out on the roof.

     In the book, I don’t have footnotes for every picture.  The reason is that some of the pictures just don’t have good stories.  The story behind Crystal is one such example.  I met Crystal at a gay Easter parade in New Orleans.  She allowed me into her home.  No story.

     There are two pictures of prostitutes in Sleeping by the Mississippi.  I could justify this by saying that prostitution, like prisons, has historically played an important role along the river.  But this wasn’t my reason.  I photographed prostitutes because I was curious.  One of the great things about being a photographer is that it gives you an excuse to investigate things that you are curious about.

     Very early in the project, I spent some time in Memphis.  I kept driving up and down Elvis Presley Boulevard where I would see this motel that was clearly also a brothel.  I was curious, so I just drove in.  I met Sunshine.  I took her picture.  She was the saddest person I met in my travels.  I felt guilty about this picture.  I had photographed her wearing a bikini on her bed.  On another trip to Memphis, I visited her again and gave her a copy of the picture I’d taken.  I told her that I wanted to take another picture—this time in nice clothes.  She told me that she didn’t have nice clothes, she didn’t have much of anything.  But she did have a collection of stuffed animals.  So I photographed her covered up by all of these toys.  But the picture just wasn’t that good.  That is the thing about photographing people.  Sometimes the unpleasant pictures, the ones that make you feel guilty, are the best—most honest.

Sugar’s is a brothel in Davenport, Iowa. I was nervous about entering. Surely they wouldn’t let me take pictures. I walked in a found this little old lady at the front desk. I asked her for permission to take pictures. I offered her money. She declined the money saying pictures would be “good advertising.” I spent hours there. I photographed the rooms, the prostitutes, even a client. Once again, I was amazed by how open and generous strangers can be.



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