Thicker Than Water (1968-2012), Photographs by Dick Blau
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An interview and picture reading with Sarah Rhodes
In addition to his work in other cultures, for the last forty years Dick Blau has also been making photographs of his own family. In his book-in-progress, Thicker Than Water, Blau explores two major relationships through a set of individual portraits and a series of domestic scenes. In these photographs, he looks at both the ordinary and the extraordinary aspects of family life. Love, ambivalence, and pleasure; dailiness, conflict, and drama; the birth and growth of children, the death of a marriage: all this unfolds in his photographs as he negotiates the complicated terrain of feeling in family life.
The complicated mix of emotions I feel in the nest we call the home.
What made you decide to photograph your family?
How it all began…
It was the late 60’s. I was directing plays and complaining about the photographs of my productions. I got a camera and quickly learned that it wasn’t the fault of the photographers. It was the productions. Despite my earnest good intentions, the performances were strained and…histrionic. At the same time that I was trying to photograph the stage, I also started using the camera in my house. Here, the images I made of my life and its dramas were much richer, more ambiguous, and emotionally compelling. So I gave up the theater, became a photographer, and dedicated myself to the study of unrehearsed expression.
What are you trying to express through your pictures?
I am trying to explore the feelings that come with family life. Love, ambivalence, and pleasure; dailiness, conflict, and drama; the birth and growth of children, the death of a marriage, and so on. These photographs are notes to the people I live with and love. And yet, despite their specificity, I also see them as part of a larger conversation underway in culture – about how we live over time in the institution of the family, about the complicated space of feeling we call domestic.
How do you visually represent your place in the family when you are behind the camera?
I do it in several ways: through the periodic self portraits I place in the narrative, through images of myself and my family reflected in mirrors, and by occasionally calling the viewer’s attention to my unseen presence through certain small but important directorial interventions that I make to generate the shot.
Where is the line between your public and private life?
It may not look like it at first glance, but there is actually a line: there is a lot in our life that the viewer is not invited to see. On the other hand, you can also see that there are pictures whose intent is to push, for one reason or another, the limits.
Meeting Jane – who has practiced feminist theory as a kind of performance art to provocative and amusing effect – made it possible for me to explore the line between the public and the private, which was becoming a flashpoint in our culture, with a willing and fearless partner. While struggling to engage each other as people, we also came to do our intellectual and artistic work in public. The picture of Max’s birth, for example, is on the cover of Jane’s Thinking Through The Body.
Does your own childhood differ from which you have captured in Thicker Than Water? Did anyone record it?
Yes. I was the child of a single working mother. We were quite poor and lived the artist’s life in Greenwich Village. My mom was an actress: Quite a distinguished one, actually. Among other things, she premiered Brecht’s Mother Courage in the States. After breaking up with my biological father, who was a painter, she and I moved to California where she eventually married the man who raised me, a theater director named Herbert Blau. A few years later, along with another couple, my parents started a ground-breaking theater, the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop. It was in and around this theater that I grew up. I was a very difficult child , I remember – and am told. I think it’s made me sensitive to the suffering of children, to their life of feeling, to their feral nature.
I do have some pictures of myself. In one I am in my mother’s arms, she in a beautiful blouse and with an even more beautiful look, looking at me. Another, which I found when I was grown up, also sticks with me. I am in New York, dressed in high 40’s style, looking angry and resolute, running away from my mother, who seems to be stumbling as she tries to catch up with me. I looked at this photograph and thought, “I could have made that picture.”
Which photographers do you draw inspiration from?
It was painting that ravished me, early on. The Dutch and Flemish Masters. Memling, for example. Later, Beckmann too. (The last picture in the book, of me in the hotel mirror, has something to do with a Beckmann self portrait I have always loved.) When I got interested in photography, it was Julia Margaret Cameron and Stieglitz I went for. August Sander too. In a more contemporary vein, I was interested in Emmet Gowin. In fact, as I was finishing the Heide series and was looking for a way to widen my frame of reference, I came across Gowin’s family book. I liked the mystery of it all, and his use of the natural world around the house as a kind of stage. I had never been much for nature, but I saw in his work the way it could be used as the setting for the human drama, so I soon found myself working outside in my backyard.
How do you feel about Annie Leibovitz’s photographs of her parents and her children with Susan Sontag?
I don’t know. I never wanted to spend much time with them so I can’t say anything very specific. The pictures struck me as quite awkward, in every sense of the word. I know that when things get really bad, I am not interested in picking up my camera. Normal, survivable bad, that’s different. Anyway, I feel for Leibovitz. That was all very complicated.
You have described the members of your family as actors in a chamber play. Is Thicker Than Water pure documentary photography or are you recreating events and feelings passed? Is there a balance between fact and fiction?
Actually, I am trying to have it both ways. On the one hand this is the purest of documentaries, with a highly identified and very specific cast of characters, dates, ages, the whole thing. At the same time, I am trying for something that is much more general.
I have learned how to tease out the fictive possibility in certain pictures so it hovers there, lending a dreamlike quality that plays well against the harder edges of the documentary. Take The New Arrival. With its weird light and flattened space, this picture is meant to be read as every kid’s bad dream about the appearance of a sibling. At the same time, it is the record of a very specific moment in the life of a very specific child.
What do you think of Duane Michal’s comment that ‘the camera is an instrument of invention, not to capture reality’?
Of course the camera will fail any strict reality test. Add to this the photographer, who brings his own baggage, and we are making it up as we go along, in the land of projection as much as of representation. But saying that does not completely persuade me to unmoor the photographic image from its source. (Our dog Gigi recognises images of other dogs when they appear on our (muted) TV. She even tries to talk to them!) Anyway, I like exploring this ambiguous terrain, between the real and not-real of the photographic image, and I am fascinated by the space between the reflection of the outside world and my projections upon it.
Your wife Jane Gallop wrote Living with his Camera, a book discussing your pictures against the theoretical framework of four important photography texts – Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, Susan Sontag’s On Photography, Kathryn Harrison’s novel Exposure, and Pierre Bourdieu’s Photography.Was it confronting having your wife write about your images in the context of your family life?
No, it was actually a lot of fun, I didn’t mind the criticism, and she got the pictures right. We’d been talking for years about these issues, and we were interested in working with one another because we thought there were deep connections between our individual projects, not to speak of our common project in life. (We are not married, by the way.) In fact, I found it was a way of revisiting, after a long and tumultuous period, what we appreciated about one another in the first place.
Was there tension within your family taking so many intimate moments over so many years? And how do they feel about it now as they have their family album published and widely available?
At times there was tension, particularly around my divorce when I pretty much stopped taking pictures of Anna. I was worried she would think that this was the only thing I cared about, so I put the camera aside. (Luckily, I eventually did just enough over those years to make for continuity in the book.) As for Heide, my pictures of her were probably the only thing we never argued about. Turning to the other two kids, Max lived in his head when he was a kid, so he was easy. I have made many pictures of him crying, for example.
As to what he felt about the project. When Max was old enough to actually read Living With His Camera, Jane says he told her that he was deeply moved by one of the pictures. In The New Arrival, we have gone to the quarry with the newborn Ruby, and I make a picture of three of them. Jane is in the middle with her back toward me, and Ruby is on Jane’s shoulder, homely, feeble and unfocussed. On the other side, seeming to come out of Jane’s side, is Max, impossibly handsome, staring directly and desperately at me. Max and I went through a rough patch around the time of his adolescence. When he saw this picture, Jane says that a lot of his anger just melted away. He thought I had actually seen him, had recognised, had marked, had understood his pain.
Ruby is much more careful of her image, particularly now that she is a teenager. I just try to respect that, with a lapse here and there. Over time my general discretion has eventually paid off. One morning, for example, I walked into the bathroom and saw Ruby at the sink, her face covered with soap; without saying a word, I turned and went upstairs to get my camera. When I got back, Ruby, who hadn’t moved at all, gave me a deep look, and then went on with her business. Behavior had become performance and then moved flawlessly back into life again.
As for Jane, well, she’s been great about the pictures – and especially so because some of them are a real challenge to any normal conception of personal vanity. We had a months-long discussion, for example, about the one of her and Max on the black couch. (Summer 1989.) In that case, I left the decision about showing it – one of my all-time favorite pictures – completely up to her.
While you photographed your own family, you were also working on three photo-ethnographies on music and culture: Polka Happiness (1994), Bright Balkan Morning: Romani Musicians and the Power of Music in Greek Macedonia (2002) and Skyros Carnival (2011). Did your experiences inform either body of work?
In a certain way, I use the two sides of my work to balance one another out. Between the two of them, I can explore sound as well as silence, motion as well of stillness, the darker feelings and also the very light. I decided early on that I didn’t just want to photograph people I knew, and I also thought that there were ranges of feeling I needed to learn about. If I had ever gotten to know my subjects really well, I am sure I would have found out that they led quite complicated personal lives too. (You can see this every once in a while in the portraits.) What I really was interested in, however, was that they could somehow let it all go and enjoy themselves, this despite the harshness of their circumstances.
As a professor of film studies, why did you choose photography to express yourself, with all of its limitations?
I fell in love with photography, then kind of fell into filmmaking when I tried to find a job. I’ve made a number of films and videos and performed in others. I enjoy teaching film very much, and I am also happy not to be teaching photography in any systematic way. I retain my original fascination with the still image. With all its seeming limitations, a photograph is…memorable. The good ones strike me hard. There is a certain shock of recognition. The picture burns itself into my brain. I feel it in my body. I tried to describe this moment in the first text panel of the book: “The image pulsated in front and inside of me.” This text describes the moment that and reason why I became a photographer. There are practical reasons too. Photographs are faster to make, and cheaper. And you can publish them.
SR: I have chosen images that sit between documentary and theatre. Here are some questions relating to the pictures attached.
1. The image of the girl in the red dress has a sense of drama about it. It oscillates between feelings that are ominous and innocent. It has a different feel from the other images in Thicker Than Water work while sitting very comfortably in the collection. Can you talk about what is happening in this picture?
I know what you mean about this picture. I was using a Leica by now. It had a terrific 35mm lens whose ability to handle near and far at the same time was nothing short of a wonder.. Between that and the gorgeous, Kodachrome-like colors we could coax out of the scan, the picture has a special, glowing presence. . Then there was the nature of the space itself, half water and half land, kind of nature and kind of culture, and peopled with figures who could stand for some complicated version of the family in general. That is why it is on the cover.
I shot very little color in the beginning of my career -– it was expensive, I loved black and white, and I liked to do my own processing –- but there was a period in the mid 70’s when I tried color out. This picture was made in 1976, in the year or so after we’d moved from Buffalo to Milwaukee. We are on what used to be a small railway trestle, which provides a beautiful, perhaps slightly perilous vantage for the picture that unfolds below.
I’ve always been drawn to shooting people from the back as well as from the front. There’s something about shooting from the back that allows entrance into a kind of dreamtime. It puts the viewer in the position of the subject of the picture and provides a kind of blank body for her to inhabit. What I want to suggest with this picture was that the story to follow wasn’t, for all its specificity, just about me and my crew but about other people too The idea is to encourage the viewer to drift into her own stories as she makes her way through mine.
I use the picture later on in the book too, where it is intended to function as a kind of summation, a break between the first and second parts of the story. Here it provides the reader with an overview, a place above and apart from the scenes of struggle we just have witnessed. Finally, I placed it here because I wanted to close this part of the story by remembering the children, who saw it all.
2. The image of Jane sweeping the floor is wonderful, reminiscent of a Degas painting. It is perfect yet her body in mid-pose makes the image confronting. How does this more conceptual image communicate with the straight documentary images?
I made the photograph of Jane with the broom just as we were moving in together. It was 1983. I had color in my camera again because I had been shooting weddings to make some extra money to pay for my divorce. I had a flash all rigged up from a job the night before. I took the picture fast, with the flash, Weegee style. No misty vistas here.
The picture is kind of a joke, a construction, really, for all its claim to represent the facts of the situation. On one level, I was kidding Jane, making her out to be the ultimate housewife and sex toy. On another, I was playing with the idea of a gritty domestic classicism. (I see where you get Degas, whom I adore.) Then there is a bit of gender-bending going on, . You can’t quite tell what sex she is. With those muscles she could possibly be a guy, but what do you do with that mop of pubic hair where her head should be?!
We were in the worst room of the new apartment. I tilted the camera down a bit and tried to make the floor rise up and help close off the space even more. I liked the resulting distortion of floor and walls, the way this pushed the figure forward. If anything, the space reminded me of one of Francis Bacon’s squalid rooms, except with a touch of Vermeer in the shaft of light in the doorway, illuminating the mop and bucket. And then there was the figure. Here, in this shabby world, Jane emerges, a heroic nude in some sort of obscure olympics, holding a broom instead of javelin.
3. The image of mother and son is almost Freudian, speaking about Oedipus complex. Its balanced composition makes the scene feel very natural … it is natural but are viewers comfortable with the image?
There had been a brutal, enervating heat wave that summer. On this particular day, there was also a fierce wind blowing, and the light was very strange. I remember walking into the living room and seeing them there, on the couch. I remember thinking that it was one of the most complicated and beautiful pictures I might ever make. It was disturbing in every direction. We generally think, for example, of the Oedipus complex in very abstract and disembodied ways. Most of the time I hear it referred to as a kind of cliché, and often as a joke. Yet, in the here and now of this particular moment, the abstraction was suddenly blooded.
Of course, this is another case where you don’t know exactly what is happening. Just what Max is doing, if anything, is unclear; Jane is looking far from sexy. Perhaps the two of them are simply lying there, cooling off, not paying much attention to one another, in a sort of heat struck daydream state. Perhaps then it is the very “naturalness” you refer to that is also part of the discomfort this picture produces.
This is the Mother’s body we are talking about, after all, and the figure of the Mother is usually treated with a lot more deference than we find here. Mothers tend to be clothed – whether they are wearing clothes or not – in benign abstraction. Here, however, is a Mother in the raw. Jane is overweight and uncontained, a far cry from the beneficent, glowing Mother of our dreams. And yet. And yet, in a way, they also looked like two perfect alabaster sculptures reclining timelessly on a plinth. As I was composing the picture, I remembered a Michelangelo I had always loved, two figures on a kind of arch, symmetrically framing a door. I think it is the combination of classical symmetry with cultural dissonance that makes this picture so unsettling.
4. Toddler dominates her playroom. Are you talking about the role of children in our lives? The Child King?
That’s Ruby you’re looking at. She was huge at first, and vigorous, with an enormous appetite for life. I pictured her here, advancing into the world as if in one of those horror movies where everything else has been made small and we are about to be terrorized by a gigantic, ambitious baby. In any event, she certainly threw Max for a loop. We had thought that a nine-year difference between them would make for less sibling rivalry. Boy, were we wrong.
5. The image showing the intense discussion between yourself and Jane is constructed and a clever way of bringing yourself into the family portrait. Why did you decide to portray yourself in this way?
Jane describes the occasion of this picture in Living With His Camera very well. I made it in the middle of an argument about … domesticity. We were moving the next day, and I was going off to a shoot.. I wanted to say to her that I understood very well what she was arguing , but for me it was all about that chair. About not just taking my place in that chair. I made other pictures like this during that time, looking hard at the place where I was supposed to be, and not simply assuming I was just supposed to be there.
Aside from the personal stuff, there is a meta-move here as well. What I was doing in the picture was trying to speak through the camera, to make my picture into a formal part of our debate. After all, despite the chenille robe, I was arguing with a high theorist.
6 and 7. You play with very different styles when documenting your family. These pictures have a Tina Barney or even Jeff Wall feel to them. Is this a product of pushing yourself to try new things over the years or are you using different techniques / devices to make a point?
I like Tina Barney’s American stuff very much, especially her picture of that breakfast scene where the husband is holding a newspaper and staring into the abyss. In her work I see someone who shares my deep affection for certain domestic spaces, costumes, and moments. Where we wouldn’t connect is on the class issue, or in her interest in the oppression of wealth and things.
The second picture, of Max and Ruby at the Marriott in San Francisco, is something of an anomaly – I made it because I was amused by this domestic moment in the midst of that crazy space. (We were at big conference, hanging out in a hotel lobby while we waited for Jane.) Nonetheless, the picture is still really about the two of them, oh so sophisticated and now almost grown up, looking for all the world like a bored young married couple.
(A number of people have mentioned thinking of Jeff Wall when looking at some of my pictures, but aside from the gritty apartments, I don’t really see the connection. Am I missing something here?)
To address the larger question, yes, I do believe in changing styles. Each of the documentary books explores a different style of shooting. Skyros Carnival is even made up of two, very different kinds of photographs, one black and white set taken strictly with the Leica and flash, the other my first real venture into digital color. Each of my films is purposely in a different style too, though I also tried to make one film in as many styles as I could think of at the time. Generally, the style of each particular work is quite unified, and certain ideas seem to call for certain styles, even though the pictures may be made over a very long period of time. In my family work, however, I don’t set any particular requirements for consistency. I just try to think and feel my way through the opportunity before me, and then figure out later how it might be used in the book.
8-12. There is a definite Sally Mann feeling to these pictures – a vulnerability. You also give us perspective on how children see the world, full of drama, the weight on their shoulders. Can you talk about what is happening in these pictures. The tension between their world and the adult world. You also portray adults in a pose more often seen acted out by children, for example the woman lying on the bench looking into the sky.
I made these photographs in 1978, and Sally did her family pictures in the mid 80’s, but people often say they see her influence in them. When I came upon her work, I liked it a lot. In fact, we’ve traded pictures. She even restaged one of my backyard photographs using her kids. She sent it to me with a sweet little note. It had just kind of entered her subconscious, she said, and then popped out. So, yes, there is a feeling and a perspective that we share when it comes to children and their feelings.
I wrote something about this series when I first showed them. I called them Scenes from a Wisconsin Summer. I had never seen Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. This was deliberate on my part. I had my own Scenes going and remember thinking that I did not want to have his images in my head – which means, of course, that they already were.
The first one, Anna at 5, is not actually part of the central Summer series, though it does announce her as a central character in the drama to come. It was made in 1976. It does have something of the look of the Summer series, but it is dreamier and lacks the edge of the later ones.(It actually goes with the color one on the cover.) The later ones were made two years later, just before the marriages of both couples in the pictures collapsed. There had also been an actual death, of a dear friend who lived next door. His death and our dying relationships shadowed what had to have been the most gorgeous summer ever. And then there was that tree. I’d had to cut a branch off because it had broken in a storm. It all seemed too perfect. I just kind of left the remains to wither in the yard.
This series is about adult despair and the suffering of children. I felt very badly for what everything had come to, and I had a guilty fascination with what the kids might or might not know. Sometimes they seemed to look into the darkness around them. Sometimes you could see that they were very, very angry. (Do you know Anne Higonnet’s book, Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood? There is a very apt description of one of these angry pictures in there.) At other times, the children seemed tragically innocent – or perhaps wilfully blind — to the chaos swirling around them. Sometimes they seemed to have withdrawn to another world.
It was during this period that I began developing an idea about the background as the unconscious of the picture. Speak of the devil: I saw a lot of Freud back there! I still love to use the background like that. You can see it in the one of Jeremy that I just sent you.
About the photograph of Heide lying down. I saw that picnic table as a sort of coffin, the branches in the background as a kind of bramble bush. Then there was her look, the unblinking stare of someone deep in a very dark thought. I know what you mean about the image of the child who is lying down — everyone in this series wants to lie down and never get up – but here Heide is for me very much part of the grownup world. What I saw in her eyes was the dead end of the fairy tale.