Grant Mudford is considered one of the most skillful and extraordinary photographers alive today. He is regarded as one of the finest architectural photographers to have ever worked in the field. Among his numerous and impressive credits, he was personally selected by Frank Gehry and the Los Angeles Philharmonic to photograph the construction and completion of Disney Hall and subsequent book. He was chosen by publisher Rizzoli to create the photographs used in a superb book on the work of the legendary architect Louis I. Kahn. He is a highly respected fine-art photographer with substantial credits as well. His personal work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the J. Paul Getty Museum, LACMA, MOCA and many other prestigious international institutions. He received a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship grant for photography in 1980. The Rosamund Felsen gallery in Los Angeles represents him. Recently I had an opportunity to interview Grant and discuss both his professional career as an architectural photographer and his individual work as an artist.
Q. I know you were studying architecture in Sydney, Australia and at some point, you made a decision to become a photographer. Please explain to me how you came to make that decision (to be a photographer), and your earliest memories of taking pictures, and what kind of camera you used and so forth.
A. Before I started shooting pictures I was looking at pictures. And I was always fascinated by the medium. Then I started playing with the family 620 Brownie Box camera.
Q. How old were you at this point?
A. Eight or something. By the time I was ten, my parents saw my interest in photography and they bought me a developing and printing set. Kodak sold a developing and printing set for 620 film. It came with a tank and an apron and a little contact frame to make contact prints. So I used to take over the family laundry room and turn it into a darkroom.
Q. What were your first pictures like? What were they of?
A. I don’t really remember. The family, and all sorts of things. It wasn’t subject-driven. It was more about the absolute fascination with the medium itself. I photographed anything and everything.
Q. So you were actually working in the darkroom then when you were eight, nine years old?
A. Ten, probably. I was making contact prints, making a mess of the laundry and really pissing my Mother off. Anyway, I got into it seriously when I went to high school and they had a camera club. It was quite an active club, and I became the unofficial school photographer. I didn’t shoot the year book, but they had a magazine. I did a lot of the sports photography and general photography. I loved doing it.
I really got seriously interested in photography in my late teens in high school. I spoke to my parents. I didn’t know how people made a living out of photography, really. I was confused about what I was going to do with myself. It was time to go to college, and, um . . .
Q. So did your parents support your love of photography?
A. Yes, well, as a hobby. “Son this is a great hobby, but this ain’t no profession.” I mean, I had some great parents. They made a lot of sacrifices to educate me well. They saw me as having a profession, and photography was not a profession. They could see that I had this creative streak in me, but photography was like, forget it! “Keep it as a hobby! There is no way you can make a decent living out of this!”
They wanted me to be able to keep my creative desires satisfied. But in terms of making a living, they suggested that I get into architecture. “What about being an architect? That’s kind of creative.”
Q. That idea was actually their idea?
A. They kind of came up with that. Actually, I was shooting buildings a lot. Not architecture, but just buildings. So, they started pushing me into this architecture thing. I kind of went with it. I definitely was interested in it, however, by my second year in architectural school. It was clear that I didn’t really have what it takes to finish the course. It was a very tough course, but extremely stimulating.
When I went from high school, which had very little visual art to speak of, into this great architecture school in Sydney, it was a revelation. It was a very unconventional architectural school, a cutting edge architecture school. Not only did they have some really good architects teaching there, they had artists teaching there as well. There were some really good artists; painters, sculptors. Now, that changed my life.
Q. Did you study anywhere that taught you photography? Did you go to any photography schools, so to speak? Any fine-art schools or technical colleges that taught photography?Or are you basically self-taught?
A. Totally self-taught. For photography, it was the long and slow way to do it. But that’s the way I did it. I wasn’t attracted to most of the schools. I mean, none of the art schools taught photography then. You went to art school to be a painter, or sculptor. This was in 1963-1964.
That was a radical transformation for me. I didn’t really know the potential that photography or art could have until I went to the university, especially the first year. You didn’t do a lot of architecture the first year. They kept you away from the drawing board. We did all sorts of things, and they had some really good art teachers there who saw that that I was a photographer. So a lot of these artists that were teaching there encouraged me, and the architects also. They said I should shoot more pictures. I wasn’t very good at drawing at all, so when it came to drawing, they would send us out on these assignments to do perspective drawings on historical buildings around Sydney. I used to go and shoot pictures instead of making drawings. They usually failed me. However, that gave them reason to encourage me to continue photography.
By my second year, I had a really good design tutor, who was a really good architect. He got really tough with me. He could basically see my heart really wasn’t into being an architect. He could see that, and he strongly encouraged me to continue my photography, spending more time shooting pictures. He was very honest with me, saying I wasn’t cut out to be an architect. I really appreciated that. He introduced me to some really good photographers, including the grand old man of Australian photography, (he was like the Edward Weston of Australia) Max Dupain, a great photographer, incredible photographer. I got to know Max. He was very supportive. I was twenty at the time. There were a couple of other established photographers, most of whom were shooting architecture also.
I started getting small commissions to photograph new buildings and houses. I did a lot of photography in architecture school; too much photography in architecture school. Because of it, I failed my second year and left. It was pretty clear to me that my destiny was somehow going to be in photography. Sometime afterward, and to make some money as a photographer, I did some work for a rock and roll magazine in Australia, similar to Rolling Stone.
Oh, I forgot to mention that when I was fourteen years old, while still in high school, and for a number of years following, I was photographing children on Santa Claus’ lap during Christmas holiday in the department stores. I used this money to buy my first cameras.
Q. In my opinion, a great architectural photographer needs an innate sense of perspective, composition and the ability to interpret the essential elements of a piece of architecture, and then transport or insert the viewer into that space, visually. Now, would you agree with that definition, in a sense, or would you add something to it?
A. I don’t really think you can insert a viewer into an architectural space via a photograph. This is one of the shortcomings of photography. You know, it’s not a spatial medium. There’s nothing like experiencing a space first hand.
A. Well, the experience of sitting in this room is one that cannot be duplicated, certainly not in one photograph, and even a series of photographs, maybe.
Q. You mean the virtual experience of sitting in this room?
A. Just the sense, the spatial sense of being in the room. Photography doesn’t really help too much. I think maybe film and video could do a better job. Still photographs are so critically specific, they don’t convey, ah, spatially, they don’t give you the quality of space that you can get in the first hand experience of actually being in that space.
Q. What can they do then? What can the photograph do to reveal something about the..
A. Well, they can give you… Well, to me, this gets back to what photography does well and what it doesn’t do well. We’re probably going to disagree on this, knowing you, but (laughter) . . .
Q. Well maybe and maybe not. Why?
A. One of the things that really fascinates me and interests me about photography is how (pause) kind of, unreal it is. I’ve never really looked at photography as a conveyor of factual information or truth. To me photography, it’s not like a clarifier of reality, or ah. . .
Q. How do you relate to the picture on your driver’s license? Do you think that’s some other person?
A. That’s part of me.
Q. I mean do you consider it, do you think it’s valid enough to get you arrested? (laughter)
A. Here we go! I knew this would happen (joint laughter). So anyway, I think photography, at its most interesting, and at its best, is full of illusion and abstraction. That’s kind of what photographs do to things. They transform them into photographs. The photographs are no longer reality. So the driver’s license isn’t reality.
I’m interested in all kinds of photography, I love looking at photo-journalism. I love looking at the newspaper pictures. The LA Times, as you know, has a tradition of great pictures. So one of the things I really enjoy doing when I pick up any periodical, be it magazine or newspaper (I’m not a big reader), I love looking at images. I love to look at pictures without looking at the captions. Especially newspapers, for example, there’s always a great picture on the front page of the LA Times. I love to look at the pictures and draw conclusions about what I’m looking at.
Q. You mean before you’ve read the captions, right?
A. Yeah and invariably, I have no idea what’s going on. The picture doesn’t really tell you. There’s usually not a lot of information in photographs . It’s always, one of the first things people do. There is a sense of ambiguity or confusion. So the first thing people do is look for some help. The caption can throw you into lots of different directions. Photography is a great propaganda tool.
Q. Would you agree though, at least it is a sense of time and place? That it is some kind of record of a time and place? When the shutter is released?
Q.. For example, one of my curiosities about what you do, and you do this so extraordinarily well, I was wondering about this in terms of your process. How do you choose an angle? When you go to photograph a structure, whether it’s an industrial or scientific or residential building, or it’s the Disney Hall, how? What processes do you go through to select the angles that you pick before you make your pictures?
A. Well just getting back to what you said: that photography is a product of time and space.
Q. Time and place. I mean it’s a record of time and place. Certainly, it’s a record of time. Wouldn’t you agree with that?
A. Yes. There are definitely factors that are important and are part of the photograph. But even more important and influential, and what the photograph finishes up as, is the frame. I mean, time and place is part of it, the “Decisive Moment” or whatever. But as a photographer, what you choose to put the frame around is even more critical.
Q. Meaning, what’s in the picture and what’s not in the picture?
A. Exactly. Or what is suggested as being in the picture, like what are the extremities. One of the most dynamic parts of the image to me, whether paintings or photographs, is the frame. Photographs, like paintings, have a frame. They have an extremity and they have a boundary.
I’ve always been interested in what goes on in those edges. A lot of my photographs, particularly the early black and white photographs, there’s definitely a concern about the frame and what it’s cutting, what it’s suggesting just outside the frame. I’ve often had this massive building, or whatever, filling up most of the frame, and these slits of information, with backgrounds on the sides or the top, so the frame to me, is more than the time and the place.
Q. Lets go back to what goes through your mind. If it’s possible to communicate, when you approach a building you are going to photograph (obviously I’m talking about the exterior, but it could apply to the interior as well), what questions do you ask yourself before you make your final decision about where you will place your camera, what lens you will put on it and what your going to see? Is it too . . . Is it purely an aesthetic decision that you make at the time, what you think looks the best? Is it something you think validates the architect’s intentions and that would drive your reasoning to pick the angle that you’ve picked? Is it purely a question of where the light is at that moment of the day and where you think the best angle is in relation to the way the light is drawing the building?
A. Yeah, well the light is very important to me and very critical. So it often takes me longer than I would like to shoot a building. If it’s an important building and a decent scale it often takes at least two days to do it. The first day you never get it. If you disregard the light you could probably do it all in one day. But you can never be in the right place. There’s often two or three pictures that need to be shot simultaneously. The light is just right and you only have the time to do the one picture. Then the other two you can shoot, but the light is less than optimum. So you make a mental note or a written note about those pictures and you come back the next day.
I tend go back to my architectural training. I’m very traditional when I shoot buildings. I love elevational views of the buildings.
Q. Can you explain what that means?
A. An elevation is when an architect draws or renders a watercolor (these days they are computer-generated) when they represent a building visually before it’s built. There are some very basic ways of rendering the building visually. If it’s a square or rectangular building, you get four elevations which are absolutely straight views of each side of the building with no perspective whatsoever. It’s a squared-on view where that side of the building is square to the frame and you get no sense of anything else except that façade.
Now, I’ve always been visually fascinated by that idea and that’s a drawing technique. It goes back to the Greeks. So I use that a lot. I love it. I still tend to do that. One of the first things I shoot when I come to a building, if it’s a regular building with square sides, I do all the elevations.
Q. There, light would be critical, I would think, in terms of how those different sides of the building are lit.
A. There is often a more favored side of the building where a lot more attention has gone in terms of the design. I tend to do all of the elevations if I can. So that’s a given. From there, you go to perspective pictures. Perspective is where you get away from that frontal thing and you see two sides of the building. Again, it’s like an architectural drawing. Not only do I observe the traditions of architectural drawing but also of architectural photography because you can control perspective and there is this convention in architectural photography that the vertical, the verticals in the building, should be retained in the photograph.
Q. Meaning what, exactly?
A. In other words, all the verticals of the building, the corners of the building, the doorways, the windows, they’re vertical. They are built that way, with a spirit level. That’s the way they build things. Most not all, architectural photography, traditional architectural photography, maintains those verticals in the picture plane. They don’t keystone. With a regular camera, you point it up to get the top of the building and immediately everything goes up. Keystones . . . Or you’re on a tall building looking down and it does the other thing. So that’s another convention I observe. But the horizontals represent the perspective, so generally, those are the rules that I observe. I mean, they’re my rules because I find that a lot more satisfying.
Q. If it’s possible, and the architect is willing to do this, and the drawings are made available to you, do you prefer to see them? Does it make any difference how you photograph a building if you’ve been provided the drawings ahead of time?
A. Yes, I often see drawings.
Q. Does that help you? Do you prefer to see them, if you’re given the choice?
A. I prefer to see drawings and I prefer to see photographs.
Q. What do you look for when you see the drawings?
A. Often, architects shoot their own pictures. Before I even see a building, I will often go to the architect’s office. He’ll tell me about the building and show me a model. I love to look at models. I don’t like to photograph them, but they tell you a lot.
Models are very useful for architects, especially for clients. Most clients understand the model more then the drawings. Often, the architects, or someone in the architect’s office, shoot a lot of pictures during construction. They’re often pictures of the building when it is not fully finished or the landscaping is rough. That gives me a lot of information. I also really appreciate doing a walk through of the building with the architect, because the architect has been living with this thing for years, many years in some cases, so they know. They intimately understand this building and they know it’s good points and it’s bad points. There are very few perfect buildings. right? One of the heart breaks of architecture are the compromises involved for architects. Architects really have a rough time, architects that are artists, that is. Especially if they’re really good.
Q. This may sound strange, but do you think a building has a personality? Or a soul? In a sense, as people have a soul? Have you ever felt that a building you photographed was haunted? Do you believe that it’s possible that ghosts can live in a building? Or that a building can actually have spirits in it?
**We are in the beautiful home of Grant Mudford’s and Rosamund Felsen’s , where they have lived together for many years. Rosamund Felsen is a highly respected art dealer and runs her own art gallery. The house is located in the Los Feliz area in Los Angeles.**
A. Sure! This place does! Man, in this very room, they’re here. They’re here with us right now. (Friedkin-Really? I hope they like me.) I’ve never dismissed the idea of spirits or ghosts. Whatever you want to call them, there seems to be evidence of them here. Rosamund has had a close encounter. I kind of get this vibe, sometimes.
Q. Did you ever encounter it on an assignment or commission?
A. No, not really. I don’t call it a “spirit.” It’s more like a soul. Some buildings definitely have a soul. The building has a soul because of the architect who designed it. The architect that comes to mind is Louis Kahn. He just did these beautifully resolved buildings that are not, ah, “grandstanding.” They are just full of integrity about everything, the materials, the spaces; they don’t grandstand about anything. They are very subtle buildings, and to me they have this amazing soul, for lack of a better description.
Q. When you are photographing a very historical building, do you have a different way of approaching the subject when you know that maybe, the building has lasted for many years? When you shoot a classic, historical structure that has been revered through time, does that influence the way you approach it?
A. No, not really. A good building is a good building. If I’m photographing an historic building, the reason I’m photographing it is because it’s probably an exceptional building. They don’t come along too often. Great works of architecture don’t happen every day. If it’s an historic building, it’s probably because it “made the grade” for a lot of people.
Q. Do you have a preference about whether you start on the interior or the exterior of a building ? Does it make a difference? If you’re given the option of shooting inside or outside?
A. No. It’s really a practical consideration, usually about light. The exteriors are usually a lot easier. It’s usually obvious what to do with the exteriors in terms of light, and hopefully there’s not a lot of prepping to do for an exterior. Interiors, especially if the building has been around for awhile, invariably are full of stuff that you really don’t want there. Thee are furnishings and tchotchkes and rugs, carpets and whatever. There is less of that to deal with when outside. Exteriors tend to be kind of obvious for me; the ones to do and the time of day to do them. You take a look at the sun, you know the orientation of each side of the building, so you know where the sun is going to be for the right time, for the right pictures. It’s often a combination of doing both. Do this exterior because the sun is there, and while I’m waiting for the sun to come over here, let’s run inside and do some interiors. Most of the interiors are not that light-critical, in terms of where the sun is.
Q. You often use your own lights when you shoot interiors, don’t you?
A. Yes, I don’t like to, but sometimes you have to. I find it really difficult to create an interior view in a photograph that is lit artificially, to make it look like it hasn’t been lit by the photographer.
Q. Is there a point where a photographer can take too much creative license when he or she photographs a great building? For example, if a photographer were to use extreme wide angle or telephoto lenses to select a very strange angle to make their shot. Is there some ethical responsibility the photographer has to accurately record or document the building in the way that would honor the architect’s conception of that building? Is there a point where the photographer has gone past a level where it’s acceptable and it’s more about them, now, and not really so much about the building?
A. The very act of making a photograph of a building becomes the photographer’s work. A photograph of a building is a photograph. It’s not the building anymore. And photographers have different ways of doing it. (long pause)
One of the really unjust things about shooting pictures of architecture is that the really great buildings, like I’ve said, they don’t come along everyday. But the really great architectural works are always sold short in photographs. Always.
Q. Can you give me an example of a certain building?
A. All of them. All of them. All the great buildings that I know of are. I mean, they’re often only experienced through photographs. But when you get to see the real thing, the photographs become something else and mean something different. The really objectionable thing to me is on the contrary, less than perfect buildings, bad buildings, with a clever photographer, they can be made to look really quite interesting and good in some ways. So with selective shooting you can really bring out and make bad buildings look a hell of a lot better than they really are.
Q. It’s far more challenging to honor a great building; is that what you are saying?
A. Oh yeah. And that you can never do it, really. I’ve been honored to shoot some of the really great buildings. Such as most of the Louis Kahn buildings (all of the ones in America) are all masterpieces to me. I did a lot of research before I started the project and I was shocked at the quality of the photography. I had seen a lot of the buildings and then when I started doing my own photographs I realized that it wasn’t so easy. (long pause)
I’ve received a lot of compliments for my Louis Kahn photography, but to me, they don’t come anywhere near the real thing.
Q. I know you photographed the Disney Hall extensively and you were brought in by Frank Gehry himself, correct?
A. Well, he selected me to do the project.
Q. Right. And you started that project during construction, right?
Q. Can you talk about that, about the challenges you were facing shooting that building because it is so extraordinary? The materials that were used, the unusual structure itself, the angles and large metal surfaces he assembled for the building’s façade. . . What was it like for you, photographing the Disney Hall?
A. Like a lot of projects, high-profile projects like that, which have some controversy and problems in scheduling and budgets and lawsuits, it was very difficult for me.
Frank Gehry said, “Grant Mudford should shoot this.” Then, it was up to me to get the pictures, and there are certain people I have to work with. But basically, I’m a thorn in their side. They didn’t want me around. My presence was nothing but a nuisance to them. I was a potential liability. Eventually, I got to a stage where I knew the right time to be there, which was usually on a weekend, when virtually nothing was going on. I did a lot of the work on Sunday. They had minimal crews there. I was on my own.
Q. Did Frank Gehry share his drawings, share his plans with you, before you started shooting it, before you started to photograph it?
A. No. I didn’t really talk to Frank about it at all. Frank Gehry was not my client. He doesn’t hire photographers. He tells other people who he would like to have photograph his buildings.
Q. So who was the client then?
A. The Getty Research Institute and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It’s their building, basically. So they were the people I dealt with, rather than Frank. At the end of it, Frank said, “Great pictures!” and that was the end of it.
The biggest issue for me in doing all that photography was that the Getty Research Institute was committed to acquiring a collection of everything they could get their hands on that related to the creation of that building. They have a collection of all of Frank Gehry’s models, drawings, restaurant napkins with things scribbled on them, and Grant Mudford photographs. The whole process was of interest to the Research Institute. The other client was the L.A. Philharmonic, which wanted this beautiful book to be published at the time of the opening of the Hall. That was very important for them.
I had to finish the photography about three months before the Hall opened so they could design and produce the book and get it printed. It was still a construction zone at that point, and they said, “Oh, Grant.! You can do it!” They didn’t want a book of construction photographs. I needed to make pictures of this building that made it look like a perfect diamond.
Q. The way Gehry designed it, with all the different elements, the kinds of shiny materials that he used with those planes, those abstract kind of planes that come into one another and the way they reflect light, was that a challenge for you to deal with? Or, artistically speaking, did it make it easier for you?
A. It was very exciting. There were so many different angles on those surfaces and it’s metallic, semi-reflective surface. Even though it’s all the same material, stainless steel, because of the different angles, the metal assumes the color of what it’s reflecting. In one picture you get this consistent material that looks like three or four different colors. One of the angles is reflecting the sky. One of the angles is reflecting this brown building across the street below it. It’s hard to believe that it’s all the same material.
Plus, the building is a much more dynamic, interesting thing from the outside than it is from the inside. When you look at it from the outside, the building kind of suggests these amazing, incredibly theatrical, dynamic things that you’re looking at. When you get inside, it becomes a little more conventional. All these shapes are not expressed inside. A lot of these forms exist only on the exterior, especially the actual hall itself, where the performances actually take place. It’s still an amazing thing. They did a Gehry on the organ.
Q. What was your most difficult assignment and why? Is there one that really stands out?
A. (pause) I don’t know if difficult is the right description. But challenging? The most challenging was probably Louis Kahn because of the formidable quality of architecture and the subtlety of it.
Q. Would it be fair to say he’s your favorite architect?
A. Probably, yes. A lot of people have forgotten about Louis Kahn. He’s an architect’s architect really. He is appreciated by older generation architects and he is universally respected.
Q. You did an extraordinary book on his work, didn’t you?
A. Yes, for Rizzoli. The book was a catalogue for a show that traveled all over the world, actually, including the Museum of Modern Art In New York. It also was at MOCA here in Los Angeles. In fact, MOCA kind of initiated the whole thing. They commissioned me.
Q. What was he like?
A. He had this very active atelier where people would congregate. He was a very charismatic figure in the architectural world. He enjoyed working with energized people. He was a terrible businessman. He was broke many times in his career. He dropped dead in a men’s room in Penn Station. He was a John Doe in the morgue for a few weeks. He was so obsessed with his buildings that, when the clients’ money ran out, he would start feeding his own money into the project to make it right. He died in debt. It was a real tragedy.
Q. Did you ever get to meet him?
A. No. But I feel like I absorbed him. When I went to architectural school he made a big impression on me. My professors often spoke about him with great respect and quoted him all the time. Kahn was one of these people that everybody quoted, like when he was asked, “What is architecture?” He said, “Architecture is the making of meaningful spaces.” Pretty right, you know. It wasn’t just all about space.
Kahn worshipped building materials, what materials were and could be. What things could be, not really what they were. There was an inherent beauty in a brick. A brick wasn’t just a brick. A brick was something that could be something. He used to say, he had these expressions, like, “You should look at a brick and ask the brick, ‘Brick, what do you want to be?’ What does this brick want to be?”
He was great. I photographed all his structures in America. The real disappointment for me was that I wasn’t able to photograph his buildings in India. They were incredible.
Q. It is not only my opinion, but a lot of people’s opinion, that you are truly considered a master photographer yourself. You are highly skilled with equipment and your background is in film. Your transparencies are absolutely legendary, incredible. I’ve seen them. There’s nothing in the world, anything like an original Grant Mudford transparency. They are extraordinary, not just because of the quality, but everything that goes into them: the vision, you talked about the frame, everything.
Now you’ve had to make a transition into the digital world. I was wondering if you could talk about that just a little bit, about how that has affected you, and how you’ve either embraced it or you’ve fought it. What is your personal feeling about it?
You were so extraordinarily sophisticated and super-accomplished with film whether it was black and white, color negative, or color transparency. What is your feeling today about having to use digital equipment?
A. It’s interesting you refer to the quality of a transparency. To me, it’s still a delight to look at a well-made color transparency. It is an amazing thing. There’s no denying that if it’s made correctly, it’s a gold standard. There’s nothing like a chrome. With digital, it’s kind of a crap shoot because there is a lack of standardization with calibration of monitors and so on.
I grew up with film. I still love film. There’s something about film, as you know, that is in my blood. I didn’t resist digital, it was like the first time I played with a Polaroid.
The first time I picked up an SX 70 Polaroid camera, it was so much fun! Instant pictures! I didn’t see it as a quality thing. You get to see what you’re doing immediately. I really appreciated that and then I started to get into the quality aspect of it. It had it’s own quality.
The fine digital cameras are very expensive. I started to see the benefits of using them commercially. It became expected anyway. Clients wanted to see this kind of constant feedback on what was going on photographically.
The way I am right now is still, my favorite format is probably 4×5 film, certainly for serious architectural projects where you really need some extensive movements in the camera. The 4×5 is very hard to beat still. It has an amazing control in the way you can look at something, that big piece of film, if you drum scan a 4×5 sheet of film the quality is extraordinary.
Now today, because most people want digital file, I often shoot 4×5 color negative film, have it scanned and then deliver a digital file to the client. I kind of abandoned 35 mm film now. I’ve found that digital has replaced what I used to do on 35mm.
Q. How big of a file do you deliver to the client? How large of a scan do you deliver?
A. Usually around 70 megabytes. It’s large enough to do a double page spread in a magazine or a 20×24 inch print. Even though it’s different than film, I’m very impressed with the quality of the high-end digital cameras. The way things are going, there’s going to be a whole bunch of medium-format digital cameras with perspective control (they have them now). They’re extremely expensive and I think there’s going to be more and more of that happening. The 4×5 camera is probably just going to disappear along with the film.
Q. What do you think makes a great architectural photograph? Is there a way to define it? Explain it in any way?
A. It’s only great, the greatness comes in its ability to give you a sense of what the building really is. There are great photographs, whether they are of buildings or of other things and they speak of the art of photography on their own. The great thing about architectural photography, with all it’s limitations, is that it gives people an opportunity, on whatever level it is, to experience a building that they probably will never get to see. This is especially true of private residences. There are some incredible private homes located in Los Angeles which were designed by some extraordinary architects and the only way to experience them (because of privacy issues) is through photographs.
As I had mentioned in the foreword to this interview, Grant Mudford is also a highly accomplished fine-art photographer with many years of dedicated personal work to his credit. His photographs have been collected and exhibited in many of the finest Museums and galleries in the United States, Japan, England and Australia. He also has been published in the finest art magazines and books that deal with photography as an art form. I choose to end our interview by asking Grant questions about his life as an artist working in the medium of photography.
Q. I was curious about something. When you are working as a fine-art photographer versus when your working as a commercial photographer, what is the difference between the two? Could you talk about that? In a traditional sense, you’re wearing two hats. Is there much of a difference? Can you discuss this in a personal way?
A. I always think there is a difference. I don’t know too many other commercial shooters who work as artists and not too many artists who work as commercial photographers. It’s not a typical issue for many photographers.
I’ve always considered them quite different, although the results aren’t always very different at all. To me, the difference is the intent of the photograph. It’s not really the finished result.
It’s very hard for me to remove myself from any picture I take, so there’s probably my stamp on whatever I do, regardless of how much compromise I think I’m making towards making it work for somebody else. So the differences, to me, are very clear. When I am working commercially, to make an architect’s building look pretty good, I’m working for someone else. That may or may not satisfy my criteria for art work.
Q. But what about on an emotional level? Do you find that you come to the camera with a whole different kind of emotion when you’re working as an artist?
Clearly when you’re commissioned by a client you are aware of their needs. You’re getting paid for it, what the photograph will be used for, etc. You are concerned about that, but I’m just wondering if, on a deeper level, as an artist, do you emotionally come from a much different place when doing personal work? Are you in a different state of mind?
A. Emotion is not the word I’d use. It’s a lot easier to make commercial pictures, because there are a set of guidelines your working within. You kind of know what you have to do. There’s a certain amount of freedom to make it as interesting as possible.
Coming up with my own photographs is a much harder thing, but much more exciting. It’s much harder because you start with nothing. It’s like starting with a blank canvas. Taking all those restrictions away from working commercially can be overwhelming and intimidating to some extent. In its extreme, it renders me incapable of doing anything almost. It’s very hard to crack or just get into it. The way a lot of photographers do it (like you) is to shoot all the time. That’s how ideas come. I find if I think about it too much, I’ll never pick up the camera and do it. So just going through the action of making pictures often gives me ideas.
Q. What makes photography unique? What makes the medium of photography unique and gives it a very specific identity? What’s special about it? In relationship to the other arts, like painting or sculpture? What do you think inherently exists in the medium that makes you as an artist want to express yourself through it?
A. Well, I’m a better photographer than I am anything else. That’s probably the main reason. I have an immense admiration for the other arts. I love looking at good paintings, listening to great music. I can’t do either of those things.
I always could take photographs. The fascination I have with photography isn’t because it’s unique. It’s not that unique, you know. It’s creating imagery on a flat surface; paintings, drawings do that. The main difference, if there is one, is that most photography starts with realism and doesn’t always finish up as realism. That’s the intent of all photographs and that’s not always the most interesting product of photography.
There are a lot of disadvantages in making photographs and trying to make it look like what you think it should look like, in terms of reality. Photo-realistic painters, in that respect, have it all over photographs. They take the realism that photography offers and change all the rules. They kind of present it as a photograph. They can take a lot of liberties with the shortcomings of photographs and make it perfect.
Beyond that, I gain at least as much inspiration from looking at paintings as I do from looking at photographs. Certainly in formal terms, like composition.
Q. Lets go back in time a little bit. Could you talk about when you first came to America and decided to do that series in black and white? You photographed across America and relied heavily on Los Angeles, actually. There’s a lot of fantastic imagery from LA. Can you discuss that work?
A. Like a lot of photographers at that time, I thought the only serious photography was black and white. I was doing pictures very much like that, first in Australia in the early 1970’s. I started shooting pictures like that in London in 1974, before I came to New York.
Then I came out here. It developed and became more refined after about two or three years of shooting pictures in the States. As I said, the tradition of photography as art was mostly black and white. The work I most responded to was black and white and the work of Walker Evans, especially.
Q. Did you have a definite intention in mind when you were doing those pictures?
A. One of the great things about black and white photography still, to me, is the fact that it removes the viewer from reality. It’s a very abstract medium and most color photography strives to be realistic. Photographic colors very rarely match reality. But the idea behind color photography is to make some kind of re-creation of how things look. I’ve always liked the mystery of rendering things in black and white.
It all of a sudden becomes quite abstracted. There is something very powerful about that and very interesting, that transformation of things into black and white.
I was doing a lot of exploration in a van. I drove all over the country. I loved that. I wasn’t looking for famous pieces of architecture or famous places. I never took any pictures of the Grand Canyon, for example.
Q. Were you using 35mm mostly, or working with larger format cameras as well?
A. I did everything on 35mm. I really like the look. I wasn’t really obsessed with highly resolved, grainless large-format pictures. I love the photographic feel enlargements made from 35mm film have. It’s also because that’s about all I could afford. I owned a couple of Nikon F cameras and I like the simplicity of working with simple equipment. Most of the time, I shot and traveled just with one camera and one lens. I had a 35 perspective correcting lens. Ninety percent of all that work was shot with that lens.
Q. You printed most of the exhibition photographs with a point source enlarger, correct? And you did that for a specific reason, right? What was the reason for that?
A. Yes. I was very interested in extracting the absolute maximum quality of information contained in a 35mm negative. That meant that a point light source enlarger was the best way to extract everything from that little piece of film, even though I was using fine grain film. In order to show the grain, that it was super-sharp and that the texture of the grain mattered greatly. It is very photographic. The point source enlarger worked perfectly.
Q. How do you feel about a photographer revisiting a negative and reinterpreting it over a certain period of time? Have you found you will print a negative very differently today than, say, how you printed it over twenty years ago?
A. No, I don’t want to change it. However, the fact is that the prints don’t look the same. I try not to use an old print as a reference because things change. Many photographic papers I used in the past are not available anymore.
I did a lot of printing in the 70’s and the early 80’s on Agfa Brovira paper. I loved that paper. That’s all gone, so you adapt. I have a certain criteria of qualities that I look for in a print, and I think they are consistent. I will try to do that again on a different paper and things will come out differently. With experience, we become better printers.
I ‘m still striving for the same quality that I did back then, but I’m sure, because of the experience I’ve had, and experience of looking at prints, both mine and of other people’s, I’m sure the newer prints are better. Some people don’t agree with that. Curators don’t agree with that. Curators always like to see the original vintage prints.
Q. Many of the pictures were shot in Los Angeles. What is it about LA that you find so inspiring? That stimulates your eye?
A. Once I got to the west side of the Rockies, things started looking really exciting in the space, the light . . . It reminded me very much of Australia. I started to take a lot of pictures when I arrived in the West. I took very few pictures in New York City. It was very claustrophobic. I couldn’t get back enough to shoot pictures.
I was thrilled to discover Los Angeles. I still think it’s a photographer’s paradise. It’s very open here. The weather and light are perfect all year ’round, and there’s this infinite, inexhaustible subject matter.
Q. Let’s now talk about a more recent set of photographs you’ve worked on, the “Paint Tub” series. How did that idea come to be? Considering that you were just discussing the differences between black and white and color, the “Paint Tub” series is clearly in color. In a sense, as an artist with your own processes, you must have been looking at this very differently than you did with the black and white series you did earlier, when you were traveling across the country. Again, where did the idea come from?
A. I was looking for something. I hadn’t really done any serious color photographs. I started looking for some type of subject matter to work out some issues that were important about color photography. They are all about detail, and not so much about light.
I was looking for subject matter that would operate in color. I wanted these pictures to be all about color. By using one consistent subject matter, even though all those paint tubs are totally different sizes and shapes, I imposed this formula with the camera by making them look all the same size. The scales, you can’t tell how big or small they are. I shot them in overcast light, deliberately, and just let the color of each tub speak for itself.
Q. Could you describe what these paint tubs were used for? How did you make your final selection on which ones to photograph?
A. That was very difficult. They changed all the time. These tubs were in a paint factory that made artist’s paints. They were made in relatively small quantities and the tubs were on average, two to three feet in diameter. They were oils, I believe. They were made of cast iron. As you can see, they’ve been used many, many times, and not for the same colors. They did a good job cleaning out the inside, but the exterior of the tubs had numerous years of mixing different colors going through them. They had an amazing patina and displayed incredible depth of different colors. It was very frustrating at times to find the tub’s best side to photograph. There is usually an optimum view or angle to pick on an object your photographing. With the tubs this was very challenging. I had to decide quickly because they would use them over and over again in a rapid fashion.
Q. How do you exhibit them? How large were the prints in the exhibit?
A. I like to show them altogether, as a suite. There’s twelve, maybe fifteen. At that time I shot them on transparency film with a 5×7 view camera because I was interested in making my own color prints. I made 24×30-inch Cibachromes in my own darkroom.
Q. Do you find that you get an inspiration from your own work? That it inspires you to keep going and do more? Are there moments when you’ll see one of your own images and it will suddenly really resonate with you that everything you were hoping to accomplish as an artist you did. Does it give you inspiration to keep going?
A. Sure! The most important source of inspiration is my own work.
As much as I look at other people’s work, there are certain things that other people do which I respond to and learn from. But the bottom line is my own work is what keeps me going. It keeps me interested.
The thrill of making a great picture is something I never tire of. It doesn’t happen as often as I would like it to, but it’s one of the really wonderful things about photography that you can’t take for granted. I never know. I anticipate that certain pictures are going work out, but until you actually do them and print them . . .
Q. How much do you engage other people’s opinions of your work in your selection process?
A. I try not to rely on other people’s opinions at all.
Q. At all? Even for the editing process? Like, if you have the paint tubs series and you’ve made significant number of proof prints to view and make selections from?
A. No. I think it’s a big mistake for artists to rely on other people’s opinions of their work. I think you have to have enough confidence in what you are doing to make those calls yourself. It’s your work and you’re not out there as a crowd pleaser. Or the work shouldn’t be anyway.
As much as I like getting positive feedback and confirmation from other people, I’ve made the right moves in the kind of photography I’m doing. In the particular pictures I’ve chosen to exhibit or publish I try not to let that influence me at all.
Q. What kind of things are you working on today? Are you doing any new projects, in a specific sense?
A. I’m actually going out and shooting on the streets again with a small camera. That’s something I haven’t done in a long time. The last time I did that was with a 35mm black and white film camera. Now I’m investigating the same territory, down the road in Hollywood, with a digital color camera.
I don’t know where it’s going, but its fun. I love walking around taking pictures. I’ve been locked into using the big camera, which doesn’t lend itself to that kind of freedom. It lends itself to thinking about things pretty seriously before you make a decision about making a picture. It’s a whole different process.
To learn more about Grant Mudford, visit his website at www.grantmudford.com.