Jon Goell has been teaching photography at Montgomery College in Maryland since 2000. Before that he was a commercial, editorial and advertising photographer in Boston, Massachusetts and Washington, DC. His clients have included The Boston Globe (where he also served as photo critic), Business Week, Fidelity Investments, and Polaroid. He holds an undergraduate degree from Boston University and an MFA from George Mason University. He currently has a 50-year retrospective showing at Montgomery College through February 21, which includes work from Paris, Italy, Turkey, and the United States. There will be an opening reception on Wednesday, February 12th.
Interview and Portraits by
So the first images that appear on your website and in your current one man show at Montgomery College are images from Paris from when you were studying abroad while at Boston University. What really struck me is that they felt very familiar. The specific places and faces are different, but I could see echoes of my semester abroad in London. I also see similarities in subject matter and approach between your work and what young shooters, almost fifty years your junior are shooting today.
Photographers are born opportunists. I was studying in Paris and I had some friends who were familiar with the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau, who had been shooting street stuff since the 1940’s. Doisneau’s work was sort of funny and offbeat and HCB was, of course doing composition for movement. I was just blown away by the books of these two photographers. It just hit something that I can barely describe– it was extremely deep. The trip coincided with the time that my father left me his black 1935 Leica around December of 1963. At the same I was traveling around Europe on vacations a little bit and everything was brand new. It was as if the fog had been peeled from my eyes, and this camera was my way of experiencing it. I was aware of the photographs I was looking at by others and I was also unconsciously aware of the compositional training I was using in art school and just started snapping away as much as I could afford. I was absolutely in love with it. By the time I got back to Boston University in 1964 the writing was on the wall so I knew that I would eventually switch. I started shooting for the Boston Globe while I was still in school (it was easy back then) and I never looked back. All I wanted to do was shoot. I was like a dog with a rubber ball and that’s all I wanted to do.
I agree, I think photography is born both of opportunity (HCB‘s “decisive moment”, for example) and the physical barriers inherent to the existing technology of the day. It’s unlike painting, for example, where you can really just make it up after the fact.
For the first thirty (plus) years of photography, photographers were extremely influenced by painters– by the composition, by the use of light, by the way you had people facing in group portraits. All of this came out of painting, and a lot of early photographers were very aware of the painting of their time. In fact, Louis Daguerre was a painter.
And you started off as a painter as well if I remember correctly…
I had already started off taking the history of art, art studio, and had already gone through a year of art training at Boston University in the early sixties, but I had been drawing all my life and my mother was an artist as well. So I knew a lot even then about design, depth, and the use of light.So, when my dad gave me that Leica, which was ancient even then, I was able to take it and run with it.
And once you began shooting professionally, how did your photography change?
For the first ten years I couldn’t not shoot. Ironically, it was when I started getting busy professionally that I didn’t shoot as much because I didn’t have as much time to wander the streets. but I always did, and always do, have a camera with me, even if it’s just my iPhone.
When I was studying photography in college it was still a very step-by-step oriented program, especially when shooting 4×5. Loading the film holders in pitch black closets, composing upside down and backwards, mastering camera movements, checking focus, processing B&W, C-41, or E-6, printing, etc. It was a very tactile (and often smelly) experience. How do students think about and learn about photography today?
Very few student know how to learn by reading anything now. Too many don’t understand how to get the knowledge by reading a chapter. Going back to the 1840’s, cameras were functionally mechanical devices, with three major controls: focus, shutter speed, and aperture. It didn’t take too long to get into what those those three controls were and not only how they controlled the technical aspects of photography but also how they allowed you to do creative things with your pictures. It wasn’t too hard to get that from reading a book.
In modern life everything is digital. It’s meant that a lot of younger people coming up- almost anyone under 35- really don’t have a sense for mechanical things. Not just cameras- everything. It’s all little buttons now– you learn what you need to do, but if it’s a physical thing you don’t know how it works because your mind was never trained to think in that way. I hate to be one of those, “well when I was a kid” people, but I will. As a teenager in high school I was like anyone else. I’d pull the carburetor out of the car and put it on the kitchen table to repair it. It wasn’t that big a deal and I was no genius, but I did understand how to use tools and how mechanical things worked together and how to listen for the right sound versus the wrong sound. It made it easy to learn the basic mechanics of photography- not so much processing film and printing it well- but you could learn it.
I feel badly for the younger students in my classes now who are struggling so hard and love photography but don’t know how to do it any other way but through digital devices and usually with a fully automatic pocket camera. That doesn’t make their images less valuable, or less well composed, because some of them are just brilliant at that because those rules still apply. But the mechanics of dealing with capturing– “capturing”, because that’s what it’s called now– has changed and it’s a huge mindset that’s changed not just with photography but with all devices of any kind.
I accept this because I have to and because, frankly, people looked at my generation when I was a kid and said “I can’t believe it, you guys are just never going to manage, you’re never going to succeed…”
And the larger format shooters said, “35mm… that’s so small. How can you ever work with a negative that small???”
The very limitations and deficiencies of film contribute to it’s beauty.
So what do you think about the computer and smartphone apps that emulate film? It’s like they’re reintroducing limitations and deficiencies, but sometimes only after the initial image has been captured. Do you think that that takes some of the magic out of it?
I understand why they’re doing it and for some people it will be a really good thing. In another way it’s phony and it’s theatrical. You’re asking one process to imitate another process, and my tendency as an old-fashioned guy is to say that you might as well go back to the original process.
Look, everybody in every generation has their tricks that the former generation will say sucks. Take Paul Strand– I knew Strand. He did stuff that people before him would think was insane. Take for example his famous street shots that he did with a 5×7 camera and glass plates. He didn’t point the camera directly at the blind lady or the other folks in the street in 1914. He had a little right angle mirror attached to his camera so he could pretend to be pointing it down the street when he was really shooting ninety degrees to his left at something four feet away. So in a sense that was cheating also. But, photographers are opportunists, like I said, so anything they can find that will help them get the results that they want is legitimate. So, it’s going to happen whether the previous generation likes it or not.
So do you think using a device like that [90 degree finder] was a way of avoiding human contact?
It was a way to avoid confrontation with another human being that he was were trying to take a picture of. Remember, in those days there was no sense of privacy like there is now, at least in this situation. Strand was looking for a certain kind of picture that would be a shocker to the audience. The picture of the blind woman at close-up range, street survivors, the guy with the bowler hat, etc. (Alfred) Stieglitz absolutely loved them, and he had been doing similar things in the 1890’s but on a tripod. They were both about making pictures of life in the raw but in their own ways, based on the technology that they had available. Strand didn’t consider it cheating, he considered it a way to show the world a different kind of image of life on the street. He wasn’t doing it long by the way. 1914 to 1916 maybe, and after that he was doing different kinds of work.
Three years- that’s like three different generations of iPhone and a dozen different photo apps. You mean he actually stuck to the same tool for that long?
[Laughing.] You know I exchanged letters and phone calls with him in the late 60’s when I was a grad student in Arizona. (I called him on a dare.) I later interviewed him twice in ’73 and ’74 when I was serving as the photo critic for the Boston Globe. He and his wife were very cordial. I had lunch with them and he gave me a tour of his home in Orgeval, France. He still had those 5×7 cameras, but I looked in his darkroom and he also had all of the latest gear in there. So he was up on whatever was new.
I’ll tell you something else I admire about Strand– he shot right up to the day he died. He was in his garden shooting a picture with his Rolleiflex and keeled over right there and died.
To this day my favorite camera is my old Rolleicord. I had another Type E with the Planar lens, but the smaller one just felt better in my hands and the shutter makes just the sweetest little whisper. Do you think younger photographers still have the same loyalty to the actual camera as perhaps some older shooters do?
I think they really do have a loyalty towards photography, as we all do, but I think the digital revolution has gotten us all used to the idea that every eighteen months something really new will come along that will make their photography better. What they are committed to, I think, is getting better and sharper pictures with bigger files. And whether the camera is this particular Nikon or Canon is less important to them than the idea that the camera with the higher resolution, and lower noise allows them to get the kinds of pictures that they want more easily than they could a year or two ago.
I think that what we’re talking about is a shift between photography being based on a physical thing- a negative, a print, a mechanical camera- to being more conceptual. You never really hold your original image in the same way that you did with a negative. When you’re working with images in a database program like Lightroom, you’re never actually altering the original image, you’re basically just giving it instructions for what to do when you export it. How do you see this shift?
I actually enjoy that aspect of it and I have no conceptual problem with that being the norm today… with one exception. My preference as an older photographer in the digital age is to still do as much as I can in-camera, because you can get lazy, assuming that you can fix it later in Photoshop. I like the simplicity of that [doing the work in-camera], but to someone now it is not necessarily how it’s done. It’s simpler for them to plan on getting it done later and just capturing the picture (or pictures) now. It’s like capturing words and assembling the sentence later. That’s the current ethic and the people who learned that way are comfortable with it and do it well. In twenty years they’ll look at a younger group of photo students and gripe about how they don’t do it their way. I see this as a continuum that will never, ever, ever change.
When a younger photographer comes up to me and wants me to look at their work, one of the first things I always ask is, why do you want to make pictures for a living? Photography is something you can do as a hobby. (I know many hobbyists who are better than a lot of pros out there.) Everyone has their own reason. What made you want to choose this for a living? What’s your motivation?
I couldn’t have answered that question at that age either. I am an opportunist without planning. I’ll carry a small camera, something will come up, there will be non-sequitur moments, and I’ll whip out the camera and I’ll shoot it. Occasionally some of those things will show up in a show like this. Looking back it’s always been a way of experiencing the world and preserving what that experience was. I also came out of an art background so I had a basis in design, composition, lighting, etc. and it was just really interesting to try with the camera. I also loved using that ancient pre-war Leica that my father gave me. The very mechanics of it were fun, the sound of the “click” was fun, taking pictures of people without them knowing was fun. I couldn’t have told you why if you asked me at the time, except that I was absolutely taken by it.
All work © Jonathon Goell
Visit his website, www.jongoellphotography.com for more images.