Jeff Jacobson on Beauty, Ambiguity and Mortality

April 8, 2013

By David Walker

© Jeff Jacobson

"John Edwards on Bad TV, New York, New York, 2008," from The Last Roll. Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see more images.

In March, photographer Jeff Jacobson released The Last Roll, an introspective collection of images shot over the last eight years through a period of personal crisis. We sat down with Jacobson to talk about the work, as well as about his two previous books—My Fellow Americans and Melting Point—and the evolution of his career.

PDN: I want to ask about your new book, The Last Roll, and how it came about.
Jeff Jacobson:
The Last Roll grew out of my experience of having been diagnosed with lymphoma at the end of 2004, and doing a course of chemotherapy in early 2005. I’d be so sick I literally couldn’t go outside, and I found myself photographing around the house, and out windows, and found myself making pictures that interested me.

PDN: I keep coming back to look at the images in The Last Roll, but I’m not quite sure I understand them all, or how they’re connected.
When I was putting together [the book] I knew that if I did write [some text] I would just write about the context of where these pictures came from in my life. I was writing about having had cancer, and about having Kodachrome discontinued. For me it was a question of what do you do when you’re faced with physical mortality and creative mortality. Because Kodachrome was the tool I had used exclusively for over 30 years, 35 years.

I really feel like this book comes out of a situation where physical mortality is present. You’re not going to live forever, and as a matter of fact, you may not live a hell of a lot longer. And you’re not going to be able to continue to work in the way you’ve always worked, with the medium you’ve always used. What do you do? It’s the classic question of, when life serves you lemons, what are you going to make? And [The Last Roll] is what came out of that. I wanted people to see what I think is the most beautiful work I’ve ever done, and I’m not afraid of beauty in photography. [For] a lot of photographers, you know, that’s a no-no. Photographs aren’t supposed to be beautiful. I love beauty in photography. So I really wanted to put it out there.

PDN: I wanted to ask about your lymphoma. I’m wondering how you are doing?
I was pretty cancer-free for six or seven years, and then it came back. I did a round of chemo, and then it came back [again] almost right away. It was a really bad sign. We have a friend [in medicine] who told me about this clinical trial that was starting in Philadelphia, where they remove your T-cells, genetically alter them and then put them back in your body. They’ve had some rather dramatic results with it. So that’s the trial I’m about to do. It has the chance of wiping the shit out, at least for a while. It might not do anything.

You know, dealing with cancer, the first thing you have to deal with is the fear. Everybody has different techniques for dealing with it. If you can get to the other side of it, it’s not that the fear goes away—[but] it becomes known, you know it, you recognize it, you notice it. Once you do that, it’s actually quite liberating, because you understand: Oh, I’m gonna die [and] then everything else becomes secondary, and why am I wasting time doing shit I don’t want to do? There’s a huge gift in that, if you can accept it.
PDN: You say it’s liberating. But has it changed your vision? How is the change manifest in what you shoot or how?
Well I think these pictures are very emotional. I think they’re very beautiful, but I think they’re very emotional pictures, and I think that’s how it’s manifested. And I think there’s also an underlying political thread in this book [about] the earth and what we’re doing to it, but it’s not front and center.

PDN: Are there particular images in the book that are favorite children, so to speak?
Sure. The cover picture of the deer in the headlights. It’s a metaphor for the two questions that this book presented to me of my physical mortality—being presented with a diagnosis of cancer and being told that my film was no longer available. I mean that’s what it felt like: being a deer in the headlights—the vulnerability, being dazed, “What do I do? Where do I go?” That, and I think it’s a beautiful picture.

It’s a picture about instinctual energy, about real, instinctual animal energy, symbolically instinctual, and it’s a picture that came out of my instinct as a photographer. I literally had just turned the corner right at the bottom of [the street I live on], coming home one night, and there are these deer in my headlights. I just raised the camera and took two or three frames out the window—boom, boom, boom—and that’s what happened.

PDN: What other images?
I really like the picture of the escalator. It’s just so bizarre. There’s this fake desert. You look at it and you’re kind of saying, “What the fuck am I looking at?” The experience of shooting it was hilarious and wonderful, even though, as I constantly tell my students, don’t make the mistake of making a connection between the photograph and your experience, because your experience is your experience, it’s not the experience of the viewer.

PDN: What were the circumstances?
I was out in Nebraska. Every year the sandhill cranes come and roost on the Platte River on their migration north. And there’s this tourist museum there [that] is dedicated to showing America’s glorious westward march, and what a great and noble chapter of American history it was, which is, ah, just ludicrous, so there’s this fake desert with an escalator going up to the museum, which is full of heroic images of pioneers, and mean Indians.

PDN: This goes back to the theme of your first book, which is about [overblown] American myths.
That [escalator] picture is shot in the vein of this book [The Last Roll], but it’s very much in the spirit of My Fellow Americans. I love the picture of John Edwards on the [scrambled] TV.

PDN: What do you like about that picture?
I was [visiting] my friend Richard Sandler, and the TV was going crazy. He said, “I’m sorry the TV is so bad” and I turned to him and said, “What are you talking about? The TV’s great!” But I couldn’t figure out how to get [the John Edwards picture] in the book, and literally the last editing session I was having with my son, Henry, he said, “Well, [it] relates directly to what you [write] about: having cancer, and losing Kodachrome. So if you’re gonna use this picture, it’s the lead picture after that [text].” And the minute he said that, I went, “Yeah, it really works.” But it’s a different kind of picture than almost any other picture in the book.

PDN: Why were you so attached to Kodachrome?
It had a richer, different kind of color than any other color film. I just fell in love with the color of it, with the look of it, with the feel of it. Kodachrome 64 was great for working with a flash because it was kind of a slow film, and it works really well with highlights and shadows. And then I started working with Kodachrome 200, and again quite by accident, started pushing it two stops. And once I started doing that, [in] the early 1990s, I never went back. Most of Melting Point is Kodachrome 200 pushed two stops. All of The Last Roll is Kodachrome 200 pushed two stops.

PDN: What do you use now?
I bought a little digital camera—a little Lumix. I carry it around and I go into situations and nobody pays any attention to me because they think I’m a tourist, and I love it. It’s just a wonderful little camera. If I have a gig or something, I’ll use a [Canon] 5D, but [the Lumix is] the only camera I carry everywhere.

PDN: What are you photographing?
I’m really photographing out of the process of my own life now. I’m not traveling to make pictures. I’m just carrying a camera with me, and taking pictures as I walk through my life.

PDN: As you were doing for The Last Roll?
Yeah, The Last Roll was more intentional. There’s pictures from projects in here where I would travel around with an idea, and there are even photographs here from some magazine stories. I went to New Orleans after [Hurricane] Katrina, I did a number of stories in California. A couple of editors I’ve known for a long time would just give me carte blanche to do whatever I wanted to do. I gave them an idea, and they would say, “Go.” [Former Mother Jones editor] Kerry Tremain was running the [Californian] magazine of the University of California alumni association, and [he sent me] out to California [to] do these very broad, environmentally based ideas.

PDN: How did you get interested in environmental stories?
That’s the fundamental issue facing humanity. And it really fit in the kind of shooting I was doing.

PDN: Didn’t that start with the Melting Point project?
A little bit. Melting Point started off as, and wound up, more as a visual idea more than any of the three books. My Fellow Americans was very political, almost a classic angry young man’s look at America, although I still think it’s a terrific book. But Melting Point was a book of somebody who had become a parent, gotten older and was seeing the world in a more complex way. And the pictures became more complex. There was certainly a political feeling throughout the book, and there was a lot of humor in the book, but not as much as maybe [in] My Fellow Americans.

PDN: How did you get started on Melting Point?
I finished My Fellow Americans in the late 1980s, and I didn’t know what to do next. I started traveling. I went to Mexico. It completely captivated me photographically. I found it very liberating. Until that point I had been photographing almost exclusively in the United States and the work had been very socio-politically inspired. And Mexico has a somewhat similar historical narrative as the United States in the sense that it was colonized by Europeans. But the huge difference about Mexico is the Indians in Mexico were not annihilated. And so in Mexico you had this thin veneer of European Christianity on the surface, but right underneath it you had this very strong Indian culture, religion, spirituality. And that’s, I think, what really intrigued me. Also, in the United States, the past has been pretty much visually obliterated. That’s not so in Mexico. You can really almost see the layers of time.

PDN: So the visible layers of time and the underlying native culture—was that changing the way you were photographing?
It started to. The other thing about Mexico is the colors. The color in Mexico is just so vibrant and alive and right in front of you in a way that’s different than what I was [seeing] in the United States. About the time I started photographing in Mexico I moved [from New York City] to Los Angeles. In LA, a very different kind of landscape opened up in front of me, and I got much more interested in photographs that didn’t necessarily have people in them, and the light was different. And once that happened, then I no longer wanted to work with a Leica, because I wanted to know where the edges of my frame were. So I started working with an SLR. I stopped working with a flash about that time, right around 1991. So Mexico started it, and then moving to California really changed the way I was seeing.

PDN: It’s funny how a place and the gear you use can define your vision.
A lot of photographers work from an idea. Especially in the art world, they work from a concept. But even in the documentary world, [it’s] “Well, I’m doing a project on, ah, Ghana,” or whatever.

PDN: Do you do that?
No. I never know what I’m doing until I’m many years into a project. I always follow the pictures. The pictures tell me what I’m doing. Obviously, throughout my career I’ve had to work on ideas, [while] on assignments. But even then I would tend to get hired for projects that were not quite as specifically defined, and even if they were, the editors that were hiring me would know that I would interpret it in a pretty broad way.

PDN: So a project would congeal after a number of years?
Yeah, and I would get photographically interested in something. Like [with] My Fellow Americans, I was interested in American events, but I also got very, very interested in this technique of working with a Leica and a flash, that I hadn’t seen before.

PDN: How did you come up with that technique?
It was total accident. I was just starting to work with color. I was living in Boston and I started going to political rallies that George Wallace was doing. He was running for president in 1976 and he was having these political rallies in south Boston and they were just weird as hell, I mean they were like little, mini Nazi rallies. And for whatever reason I didn’t take color seriously when I first started going to these things, so I just started messing around, letting the shutter run, wav[ing] the cameras around. When I got the film back, I was blown away. I quit a little job I had and started following the primaries around the country.

At some point I got tired of these long, blurry exposures, and I don’t know how but I just got the idea to get a strobe, and pop a strobe in the middle of it. And when I saw that, the results of that, I went, “Ah ha! That’s it.” And so I continued photographing the campaign, doing that all through the primaries, then just kept using the technique.

What’s interesting is that I thought I was this genius that had come up with this, but in fact, other photographers were doing the same damn thing. Mark Cohen was doing this in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, years before I ever stumbled on it. Martin Parr was doing similar stuff in England, around the same time.

PDN: That was the style you used for My Fellow Americans, and then Melting Point was very different.
If I kept doing that [flash technique], I was repeating myself. Some photographers can do that; they can follow a particular way of seeing and refine it and do it over their whole career. I just got really bored with it.

PDN: Let’s go back to the “angry young man” comment. I don’t look at My Fellow Americans as [angry]. It strikes me as incisive, observant commentary [about American culture and values].
I can tell you who my two main influences for My Fellow Americans were: Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman. They created the model for what I felt journalism was. Gonzo journalism. That’s the way I saw myself.

PDN: Gonzo journalism? Meaning very subjective, with a very distinctive point of view?
Very distinctive point of view, yes, and visually if you look at My Fellow Americans and the way that shutter runs and sometimes faces just dissolve, I mean, go take a look at Ralph Steadman’s drawings, you know, in Rolling Stone, with Hunter S. Thompson. It comes right out of that esthetic.

PDN: Who else influenced your work?
Certainly Andre Kertesz was a huge influence for me. There’s kind of two schools that have emerged: one comes out of Kertesz and one comes out of [Henri] Cartier-Bresson. Kertesz’s work, I think, was more from the heart, and Cartier-Bresson’s was a little bit more from the head, but they both created a world—Cartier-Bresson’s work was much more specific and structured and had a certain kind of frame, whereas Kertesz’s work changed a lot over the course of the years. But still Keresz set this sort of emotional tone and Cartier-Bresson this graphic, intellectual tone. I always leaned very strongly towards Keresz, you know, and then Robert Frank influenced me for a while, Charlie Harbutt, [Josef] Koudelka and then some of my peers.

PDN: Why did you end up moving to California?
I moved to California because my wife is an actor and she wanted to go to LA.

PDN: And all that time you were taking editorial assignments?
Yeah, I started getting a lot of assignments in the entertainment business because that’s what’s out there. So I would go on movie sets, and sets of TV shows, I did a lot of that. Hated it.

PDN: The ambiguity of your work has grown noticeably since My Fellow Americans. Was that a conscious change?
With me it’s never a conscious change. I let my photographs lead me, at least in the beginning. I think it’s always useful to ask yourself as a photographer: Why do you photograph? And I think I photograph to find out why I photograph. And I know that’s sort of a dog-chasing-its-tail answer, but I’m always looking for information about me.

PDN: Is there something you learned about yourself that you can attribute to your shift towards more ambiguity in the work you started doing in Mexico and California?
I think I was getting older and deeper. I was a parent. I just think I was growing up. I think that life is ambiguous. I don’t think life is black and white, right and wrong, god and the devil. Those kinds of dualities are what’s gotten us into trouble. I was growing to understand the world a little better. I was also looking at other work. I was looking at a lot of film, certainly in Los Angeles. I was looking at a lot of Japanese films, like Yasujiro- Ozu’s, and Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy. I started looking at a lot of paintings, which I never had before. I don’t think I was ever moved by Mark Rothko until I was ready for it.

PDN: You talked in the intro to My Fellow Americans about successful pictures being the intersection between your subconscious and reality. Can you explain what you meant? How do you explain that to students, for instance?
I’m fascinated with the world, and what we call “reality.” I think it’s what photography does best. I think it’s the only thing that photography does that is unique as a medium: It renders a still image from a specific moment in time and space. That’s it. But that’s, to me, endlessly fascinating. So I’m less interested in conceptual stuff that’s set up. I’m always interested in photographs made in reality but [that] have a certain ambiguity about them that allows me—the viewer—to wander around emotionally within the picture. So I’m less interested in kind of hard-news photography that is very specific to a story or to an event, and more interested in other photographs that are made in reality that are beautiful, but have a certain ambiguity.

PDN: Beautiful in what way? Do you mean in some classic sense?
When I teach, I teach people that when they’re looking at a photograph, first and foremost they’re looking at form. Before you get to subject matter, if the form isn’t—I’ll use the word “interesting” or “structured”—then the photograph probably isn’t going to work. So for me, I’m really interested in photographs where form is very, very strong. It can be very simple. It doesn’t have to be complex.

PDN: You defended beauty in photographs earlier. Are you suggesting that contemporary photography tends to eschew beauty?
I think often it does. Sometimes beauty is a negative connotation in the photography world, certainly in the photojournalism world, it often is. And that complexity of form is given this high degree of value. And sometimes [complex form] really is magnificent. But sometimes a very simple form … some Andre Kertesz photographs are so formally beautiful, but they’re very simple.

PDN: And you’re saying it’s so beautiful because the form is beautiful? You mean the graphics, the composition, the balance …
Well, it’s not so much that. I think that when it’s really, really working in photography, there is a creative relationship between form and content. In Josef Koudelka’s book Chaos there’s a picture of a barge going down the river and on the barge is this huge statue of Lenin. And that’s it. But it’s just this beautiful form. And then there’s this content, which is odd and strange and obviously has historical-political ramifications. But it’s just this beautiful picture. And I think Koudelka does it all the way through that book. It’s this marvelous dance between form and content. That’s what I mean.

There’s a book of Emmet Gowin’s [Emmet Gowin: Changing the Earth], and they’re aerials of these environmentally sensitive areas where there are real problems, and they’re incredibly beautiful, but what’s being depicted is really disturbing. So there’s another example of a book where there’s this contrast between form and content.

PDN: People have been criticized for beautifying tragedy, though.
Yeah, [Sebastião] Salgado is a great example. He was constantly criticized for that. I never joined that chorus. I think it makes [the work] more powerful. I guess it could be a problem. It’s certainly an ethical issue that comes up. I remember that when Gene Smith was photographing in the Second World War, he realized he was [framing] dead bodies in a graphic way, and he found that very disturbing, that he was doing that. But my response to that is: Well, shit, he was making a photograph. Of course he’s doing that. That’s the gig!

And take a photojournalist like Eugene Richards. He’s made photographs of very disturbing stuff, but the pictures are very strong formally. There’s nothing neutral about those pictures. It’s not prettifying anything, but I would say that those pictures are incredibly beautiful, even though sometimes the subject matter is really awful. He’s got such a powerful sense of form.

PDN: My perception is that you are not exactly documentary, and you are not exactly fine art—although you are moving more and more in that direction—you’re sort of in a never-never land.
I’m in a never-never land between the art world and the photojournalism world, and neither world has ever known quite what to do with me. And I’ve existed more in the photojournalism world, that’s for sure, than in the art world.

PDN: Has that been frustrating to you?
Sometimes it’s been frustrating to me. As I say, I’m much more interested in work that comes out of the documentary/photojournalism world than I am the art world.

PDN: Why is that?
Because work that comes out of the documentary/photojournalism world is rooted in time and space, and work that comes out of the art world is often rooted in an idea that comes out of the photographer’s ego, and I’m less interested in that. There are certain photographers that are always exceptions to the rule, where they set stuff up and I think it’s wonderful, but not many. You know, I’ve almost never seen anything come out of the Yale School of Photography that remotely interests me. I just find it vacuous. I don’t think it’s very intelligent. I’m sorry.

Koudelka has lived in this never-never land [between documentary and art]. His work has changed over the years and he’s just a genius. And I love his pictures. But they’re always rooted in specific time and space. And Andre Kertesz. He was a big deal in France when he [fled the Nazis], and it took him 30 years before he was accepted in either the art world or the photojournalism world in America.

PDN: Was there ever a time that you were the darling because of your style, and the novelty of it?
I was a flavor of the month, certainly after I was shooting three or four years and I had been using this [flash] technique.

PDN: Do you feel like you were able to capitalize on that?
I was not able to capitalize on that, mostly because of my lack of understanding of how that world worked. And because of my lack of wanting to succeed on the terms that that world set.

PDN: How can you say you had a lack of understanding? You’re a smart guy.
I’m a smart guy, but I did not grow up in an environment that had any contact whatsoever with the arts, with journalism. I didn’t know shit about how that world worked. And you know I was deeply involved with my family, from 1979 on, so I wasn’t swimming in the social swirl of the photography world. I would go home to Staten Island, [New York,] every night to be with my wife and kid.

But also [my] work just didn’t fit a profile. No one could quite ever know where to put me. It’s been an interesting place to photograph from, because it’s not that I’ve worked in obscurity, but I haven’t had people demanding that I do the same thing over and over and over again to feed the machine. And that’s what happens. People want you to do what you did last time. They want to hire you because they know exactly what you’re going to come back with. And they don’t want surprises.

Our interview continues. In “Jeff Jacobson on Making Pictures for Yourself,” he discusses why he left Magnum, how he teaches his students what makes a good photograph, why finding photography was “a gift from the gods.”

Related Article:

Jeff Jacobson Photo Gallery
Jeff Jacobson, Part 2: On Making Pictures for Yourself