Legendary photographer Ari Marcopoulos has an impressive archive of imagery documenting his friends, and his personal life. Recently he came out with a limited edition book called Directory which includes 1200 photos of his current body of work. Chris Taylor interviews Ari to talk about his history behind the lense.
When I first decided to get serious about photography I personally learned from Mary Elle Mark and interned at Alec Soth’s studios but in the end it was a 65 year old German guy who taught me the ropes. Was there anyone you learned from- photographer or otherwise? I’ve read a few things here and there about you working with Irving Penn, who seemed to be quite the recluse- is there anyone else who sort of took you under their wing?
I learned from a lot of people-from mentors to friends. I think in the end I learned most from myself and mistakes that I have made. People tend to want to give credit to the famous people that you have worked for but I think it’s the people that are unknown that taught me a lot. Like the local newspaper photographer in my home town where I grew up is a great example. He would let me come along and use his darkroom.
Recently there have been some supportive arguments that all photography, no matter the genre/subject, stems from a documentary approach. And seeing how this issue´s theme is called “Documented” I was curious as to where you might see your work in this. I had a photo journalist teacher that spoke about artists work falling into either an “observer” or a “participant” roll, commenting on that few individuals were really skilled at doing both. When I look at your work I think you fall into each category. Would you agree with this? It appears that you are able to be patient, looking and waiting as well as jumping right into a situation, directing things.
Often my work gets described as a documentary and probably the earlier work is more in that vein. But on a whole I feel that my work doesn’t follow many rules and that there is really no narrative like in documentary photography. A lot gets made of me being a participant, but I feel that I really just take the same photos over and over again. I have started noticing for example that I photographed the same tree in the last few months multiple times. Not in the same way as a document of the passing of time. Every time I walk by this tree I am compelled to photograph it and it was only later I realized that it was the same tree. So in a way it proved to me that I am in touch with my intuition and that tree really means something to me.
Looking at your earlier photos from the 80’s and 90’s in New York, I imagine that it must have been hard work and some time to build a rapport with some fairly important artists and musicians. What came next was relocating to Sonoma CA and then photographing your immediate surroundings and family. Was there anything you felt about your work that made you break away from New York and want a change? Or was your life just progressing into family and quieter surroundings?
The hard work has always been trying to survive. The hanging out and getting with people was easy. The move to California was more in sync with having a family but it was also time to change environments. It really took my work further when I moved to California. Being more isolated helped me really just do what I was into without outside interference.
The book you put out in 2006 called Flow is one of my favorite books. When I get stumped on my own editing I usually take a look at it for clues! The first photo is of your family napping together in a bed. It just kind of sets the tone for the book, allows one to examine and take everything in without a pair of eyes looking back at you. Was there any specific ideas you had in making the layout and sequencing of this book?
That book was a catalog from my first big show in my home country of Netherlands. So the idea was to span work from early work to recent work. Also the book was meant to be small like something you can easily carry with you and look at. As far as sequencing that is something I always do very intuitively. I do so many books that I always just try to do whatever comes to my mind, including perhaps mistakes. Maybe one day I will make the perfect book after much practice.
Another book I own of yours- Adrock put out by Nieves, is an interesting idea. Although it’s fairly short, there’s no lionizing portraits of a famous musician- instead you see a more personal approach- would you call it a collaboration even?
The collaboration aspect comes from that he (Adrock) just let me take the photos and allowed me to do this small book. The book is part of a continuing series of photos of one person. The first one was Terje Haakonsen, the pro snowboarder. His book was titled “The Cat”. The next one is of Harmony Korine. I do have someone in mind for the next book but I a still unsure. Maybe that tree….
As you can tell I’m a big fan of books. I am always curious to know where other artists get specific inspiration from. In your book ‘Flow’ there’s a photo of Jennifer standing in the doorway to your living room in Sonoma. To the right of her you can see your bookshelf, there are a few Man Ray books. Just looking at your black and white zines I get the feeling he might be up there on the list four you. His photo ‘Le Violon d’Ingres’ has very similar feeling to the cover of one of your recent monographs ‘The Chance is Higher’.
I like Man Ray I don’t think his photos have a big influence on my work, but I do like that period of art history….Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp etc… The Man Ray photo and the cover of my book is what you read into it.
Your newest book Directory is huge! As well as the recent installation at White Columns. Just looking at the book itself it appears like a lot of editing. How long did it take you to make and put all the finishing touches? Did you have any rules going into the creation of it or were you like I’m going to take (3000 photos?) of the last three years of graffiti etc and just see where this goes?
The book was a concept or an idea that I had for awhile. I just accumulated 1200 images to put in the book. The images span about 3 years. The editing was minimal really. Most of the work was scanning and then putting it into the document that had to go to the printer.
What is your photo editing process like for projects? Do you feel you need some healthy space away to feel objective about photos? Or do you get them processed right away and just go from the feeling of when you took them? I like to put a few 5×7’s on my wall the next day and after a couple of weeks the weaker ones come down. I assume you might have prints made or do you spend a lot of time on the computer screen?
Not much time is spent on editing, I know what I like or need right away. So I just look at it when they are processed and pick the ones I feel work.
I think it’s difficult for someone to pin down your work, there’s always a surprise project you are creating on with various forms of visual art and sound. Are there any new projects you are starting to work on? Feature length film maybe?
The idea of a feature film is always on my mind, although one way or the other I doubt that I will ever make a straight narrative film. I finished a diary style documentary on my late friend Craig Kelly that is an hour long. I am working on a book that looks very different from what I have done before. But all in all I don’t really have that much planned.
My friend recently asked Jeff Wall a similar question about being ‘cannonized’, a sort of smart fan base that thinks he “cannot fail”- by the looks of things its arguable that you have the same. Does this type of appreciation interfere with any of your working process?
A fan base is both a nice and uncomfortable feeling. But I am not really to concerned with what people are going to think, I mean I can only do what I can do, it doesn’t really matter if one says it’s amazing and another says it is bad. It really doesn’t change what I do. So I would say it does not at all interfere with the process
The YSL 2011 campaign film you recently made opens up with a shot that I realized after was a still photo- it felt like it was going to spring to life, the same with the opening shot of the main subject- it feels like a photo and then suddenly he blinks! Reminiscent of a Warhol short film where the viewer gets to study a persons face. Recently I’ve noticed there seems to be a number of artist using digital stills and film and blurring the two together, is there some of that intention there? Do you plan on making more films in that vein?
There are no still photos in the YSL film. Not even frozen video stills. Everything is moving. I used a lot of stills in some video that I did in 1992, but after that I haven’t at all. So in the YSL movie it just looks like a still because the shot is locked off on a tripod.
What are you currently working on? I heard recently you been traveling doing exhibitions in the US and Milan.
I have an exhibition in San Francisco at Ratio 3 gallery.