A Talk with John Yang, by John Yang
from Indian Ladder: A Lyric Journey, Albany Museum of History and Art, 2007
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I am, by upbringing, a Confucian. I am, by nature, a Taoist. I am, by outlook, a Puritan. I’ll leave it at that.
When did you start taking pictures?
I was thirteen when given my first camera, an Argoflex, by my father during my freshman year at Putney (a progressive boarding school in Vermont). From then on, I was smitten. My first published picture, a winter landscape, was on the cover of the school magazine. I was not the only photobug at school. There was also Tim Asch, who later went on to become a documentary cinematographer, and David Sapir, now an anthropologist at the University of Virginia, who also teaches a course in photography, and David Plowden, who is known for his many books documenting America. We were passionate about photography. For the school magazine, I wrote a short essay with a long title called “The Potentialities and Limitations of Photography as an Art.” Tim Asch and David Sapir held evening seminars, showing pictures by Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, and Henri Cartier- Bresson. We were successful in bringing to the school a show of Edward Weston’s photographs, courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art. Except for Tim Asch, who died some years ago, I believe all of us are still taking pictures today.
Who are some of the photographers you admire, or who may have influenced you?
The photographer who first comes to mind is Edward Weston, as much for the example he set as for his pictures. He worked in a simple and uncompromising way. I can’t think of a better definition of composition than his: “it [composition] is the strongest way of seeing.” Then there is Eugène Atget, the French photographer who documented his Paris in the early part of the last century. His was an extraordinary body of work. Alfred Stieglitz is another. America & Alfred Stieglitz: A Collective Portrait, a book of essays by Louis Mumford, Waldo Frank, Paul Strand, and others, about Stieglitz and his times, made a lasting impression beyond the confines of the darkroom. I mustn’t forget Minor White. I took a summer course with him in 1951, taking a four-day bus trip from New York to San Francisco where he was teaching at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). There, I joined my friend and former schoolmate, Tim Asch, who had arrived earlier. He had a summer job as Minor White’s assistant. The course taught me the rudiments of Ansel Adams’ “Zone System” and the use of a 4" by 5" view camera. (I used an 11" by 14" view camera at Thacher Park). Minor White was a gentle man who cared as much for the state of his students’ souls as for their learning lessons in photographic technique. When teaching, he often assumed a guru-like manner which was distracting to some, and overlooked by others. Although he could be obscure, for the most part he spoke simply and directly. I believe what Minor was ultimately seeking for himself and for others (which is why teaching was such an integral part of his life) was the attainment through photography, or if necessary by some other “way,” of an enduring state of rapture. I was able to see much of his work, including work in progress. I remember a “sequence” of his seascapes of the Pacific, which he called “Songs Without Words”. They were 4" by 5" contact prints. I had never seen such beautiful photographs.
Has Ansel Adams had an influence on your work?
Ansel Adams is known to have invented the “zone system.” The system enables the photographer to work deliberately to an imagined end by use of a “gray scale.” The gray scale consists of ten distinct steps, called zones, ranging from black (zone 0) to white (zone 9) with zones of grays in between. When committed to memory, the gray scale can be an effective aid for envisaging (“visualizing” in Adams’ term) the tonalities of the important parts of the scene in a print, and for adjusting exposure and development of the film accordingly. Large-format photographers working today owe a great deal to him. I have the entire early series of his books on photographic technique, and they are all well marked. While Edward Weston defined composition as “the strongest way of seeing,” Adams once defined composition as “a wrestling match” with his subject — a match which he did not always win.
What about Adams’ photographs? Have they inspired you?
The story goes that when Ansel Adams deigned to visit the East in preparation for his solo show at the Museum of Modern Art (I believe sometime in the 1940s), he was decidedly unimpressed with the local scenery. He was more impressed with New York’s urban canyons and actually took photographs around Rockefeller Center. His early landscapes I like very much. Some of the contact prints that he made then were exquisite. He lost me when he associated himself with the dealer Harry Lunn in order to make mass-produced, oversized prints of his best-known photographs. But by then he was getting on in years and supposedly needed the money. Not even Ansel Adams could live on the kind of retail sales by which “fine-art” photographers are supposed to make a living.
Are there contemporary photographers or artists you admire?
I don’t know how contemporary they are, but I very much admire the early work of Robert Frank — Lee Friedlander, too. I can’t really comment on the current photographic scene because I haven’t kept up. But there seems to be many photographers out there today shooting “landscapes” of all sorts; not only natural landscapes, but all manner of cultural landscapes, and even psychological landscapes. Ever since J. B. Jackson, the geographer and essayist, redefined the word “landscape,” it continues to be even more broadly redefined.
I very much admire the books of Ed Ruscha. Folk art, too, appeals to me. I also like Edward Hopper. Critics say a few nice things about him, only to go on to dismiss his work. Robert Adams, the writer and photographer, said — and I agree — that he has a photographer’s eye. In his paintings I hear an unearthly silence.
Am I correct in noting that there is also an unearthly silence that can be heard in many of your photographs?
Could be. Someone once said that my pictures have a distinctive elegiac tone, that they are pictures taken in a minor key.
Is it true, as a critic once observed, you work on one project at a time, and each project takes about five years to complete?
That’s about right. There is one project that I’ve been working on continually for more than three decades, mostly during winters. I’ve been photographing the woods, or “tangles” of various public parks in the outer boroughs of New York City, as well as the many overgrown preserves and sanctuaries — “pockets of wilderness” — in the metropolitan area. My photographs of these woods do not resemble any of those taken at Thacher, except for one (cat. 31). Nor do they resemble the work of any of my previous projects. My two most recent ones were based in New York City and culminated in exhibitions and books: Over the Door: The Ornamental Stonework of New York (1995) and Mount Zion: Sepulchral Portraits (2001). Before then, I completed two projects using an antique, 1903 camera, a Cirkut No. 10, to make panoramic landscapes of 360 degree views. These were scenes taken from within the scene itself. The contact prints were 10 inches high by 78 inches long. The projects culminated in the exhibitions, Innisfree Garden (1986) and The Golf Course as Landscape Art (1989). A selection of photographs from some of these projects and others can be seen on my website: www.johnyangphoto.com.
How did you discover Thacher Park and the Indian Ladder Trail?
Through a geology field guide of upstate New York by Bradford B. Van Diver, a professor of geology at the State University of New York, Potsdam, which I bought sometime in the 1980’s. There was a reference to Thacher Park and the trail, along with a photograph of Minelot Falls. Van Diver noted there were cliffs 100 feet high. I couldn’t believe such a place existed in the east, only 170 miles from New York City, where I live. I first went to take pictures in November of 1987. None of the pictures were any good. I went back in the fall of 2001 with my 11" x 14" view camera to photograph the cliffs, not realizing then, because of the severe drought that year, that two waterfalls usually flowed over the ledge. I missed going back in 2002.
I went back in the spring of 2003 and continued to photograph at Thacher through the fall of 2006, and then one last time in early 2007. Most of my photographs were taken in early spring or late fall. Photographing the cliffs in the summer is difficult because of the heavy underbrush. The trail is closed in the winter because of ice and snow. The New York State Museum has in its collection old photographs of Thacher taken in winter that show the falls as huge free-standing, fantastical columns of ice. (I made prints from these glass plate negatives.)
You have many pictures of rock formations. Do you have an interest in geology?
Yes, I find those diagrams and illustrations in geology textbooks fascinating. I love rocks, and when photographing the cliffs along Indian Ladder Trail I tried to capture the rhythmic play between the wave-like striations and the abrupt vertical fractures of the Coeymans and Manlius limestone beds. I wouldn’t expect a geologist to find my pictures particularly useful as geological illustrations. On the other hand, my knowing something of Thacher’s geological history has deepened my own sense of the place.
All your photographs of the cliffs appear to have been taken in the shade. Is that by choice or circumstance?
Both. By circumstance, because the orientation of the Helderberg Escarpment generally faces northeast, so that the only time the cliffs receive direct sun is in the morning in mid-summer. By choice, because shadows can make or break a picture, and for what I wanted to do, they usually just got in the way.
Why are there no people in your landscapes?
Look carefully and you will find at least one person in every picture.
Has the Hudson River School of painting influenced your work at Thacher Park?
I wouldn’t say so because I knew so little about the work. Of the few paintings I recall having seen, I was turned off by their visual and rhetorical bombast. I have tried, fairly recently, to get to know better the work of Hudson River School painters. From some of Thomas Cole’s drawings for the Albany Institute’s show, Drawn to Nature (1993), I have found that many of the subjects he chose to depict are like those I have, on occasion, chosen to photograph. In the Institute’s catalogue, John R. Stilgoe, Professor of the History of Landscape Development at Harvard University, draws a parallel in his essay, “Walking Seer: Cole as Pedestrian Spectator,” between Cole’s and Henry David Thoreau’s insistence on traveling by foot. The pace of walking and the freedom it afforded suited them both, and enabled them to commit themselves to “sustained pedestrian looking,” and to see what they would have otherwise missed had they chosen alternate modes of transportation suited to the main, well-traveled roads. Just such sustained pedestrian looking is for me what photography is about.
What about those photographers of the American West — William Henry Jackson, Timothy O’Sullivan, and Eadweard Muybridge? Have you been influenced by them at all?
They left an impressive legacy. None of them, of course, worked by himself; each worked as part of a team. Their 16" by 20" albumen prints are impressive. I have looked at them closely. But has their work influenced mine? East Coast photographers know better than to compete with West Coast photographers on West Coast photographers’ terms.
But some of your Thacher Park pictures seem to do just that. You seem to have made the landscape of Thacher grander than it is. Someone also remarked that it was incredible that some of your Thacher pictures could have been taken in the 21st Century, and in the East, no less.
I have a fondness for small, bounded places, and Thacher Park is just such a place. The Indian Ladder Trail itself is less than one-half mile long, but parts of it possess monumental scale. Perhaps, that is what comes through in my photographs.
Has anyone ever told you that they prefer seeing your pictures of a place to the place itself?
Yes they have, but I don’t put much stock in it. I would rather be told that my pictures reveal something about the place that they hadn’t seen before.
Why did you use a large 11" x 14" view camera when you could have used a 4" x 5" camera and just enlarged the negative to obtain an 11"x 14" print?
Contact prints have a unique quality that enlargements can’t match. I started by using my 8" x 10" camera but found the prints too small, and therefore switched to my 11" x 14". Another reason is the much larger image seen on the ground glass of an 11" x 14" camera. One simply cannot see as much detail on the ground glass of a 4" x 5". I believe, for that reason, one does not take the same kind of picture with a 4" x 5" as one does with an 11" x 14". The process of photography is about copying, and recopying. What is copied, and how it is copied, is about the art of photography.
The pictures in your show are all black-and-white photographs. Do you have an interest in color photography?
There are color photographs I like, but I have never been interested in doing color photography myself. I like old autochromes with their muted colors. Polaroids, too. They’re one of a kind — precious and small. Color prints today tend toward the gargantuan. The larger they are, the less I like them. That goes as well for black and white.
The photographs in your show are called P.O.P. prints. What is a P.O.P. print and what makes it so special?
Conventional black and white printing papers have to be chemically developed after exposure to make the image visible. With P.O.P. prints the image is “printed out” by the direct action of light (either sunlight or artificial ultra-violet light) during exposure of the negative. This makes it possible to examine the image periodically to check if sufficient exposure has been given. P.O.P., for this reason, is useful for proofing.
And what are the special qualities of P.O.P. paper?
First is its gradation. That refers to how evenly, or unevenly, tonal values from black to white are distributed in the print. P.O.P. is noted for its clear separation of highlight values. Second, there is the overall color cast of the image, which can be subtle or pronounced and which depends partly on the particular toner used. Toning is necessary to make the printed-out image permanent. A gold-based toner is typically used. It can give a very wide range of tonal values. The tone I prefer is one that gives me deep purplish-sepia shadows along with a pink cast suffusing the highlights.
Would you consider using digital?
I would not. It is not just another form of photography — of picture making. The whole digital process, the materials, and the result are different.
You refer to your photographs of Thacher Park as a “lyric journey.” What do you mean by that?
I appropriated the term from James Cahill’s book, The Lyric Journey. James Cahill is Professor Emeritus of Chinese Art at the University of California, Berkeley. His term, “lyric journey,” refers to a kind of painting and poetry, which originated in China during the Southern Sung Dynasty in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It catered to an urban elite, including many civil servants, residing in bustling cities like Hanchow and Suchow (where I was born). Paintings and poems were typically inspired by, and followed, a distinct narrative, which Cahill called the lyric journey. The journey sought the recovery — however brief — of a lost harmony with nature. It refers to both the partaking in the experience of nature (including the production of paintings and poems) as well as the recalling of the experience of nature (including the enjoyment of paintings and poems). What was I doing, driving 170 miles from New York City to photograph along Indian Ladder Trail in Thacher Park, other than making a kind of lyric journey?
Cahill’s journey involves changes in place (from city to country to city) for achieving the restorative benefits of nature. My journey involves an imaginary excursion undertaken by my viewers to achieve much the same end. The imaginary excursion consists of successive stages of awareness: awakening, forgetting, recalling (the dream), foretelling, and returning. The sequence is cyclical so it matters little where it starts. The exhibition of my Thacher photographs starts with the stage of awakening; the catalogue starts with the stage of recalling. About these stages more is said — but not much more — in the five small panels — the “Narrative Notes” — I have interspersed among the photographs in the show.
What about those who have just come to see your pictures and have no use for narratives, especially cyclical ones?
That’s fine with me. When I started taking pictures, I did not have in mind any conception of a “journey.” For the most part, the story occurred to me after I had finished taking my pictures. Fifty or sixty years ago, late in life, Edward Weston put together for publication a collection of landscape photographs taken at a place he knew intimately on the Pacific Coast not far from his home. The monograph was called My Camera at Point Lobos. It was a collection of great photographs by Weston and there is no narrative.
Returning to the “lyric journey,” has Chinese painting influenced you at all?
Perhaps it has, if only by osmosis. I grew up in a home that had many Chinese landscape paintings hung on the walls. But if the influence was there, it did not play out at Thacher Park as it probably has in other work of mine. My pictures along the Indian Ladder Trail do not resemble typical Chinese landscape paintings. The subject matter — and the mood — are different. There are no looming mountains in the background of my pictures. Nor is there a middle ground with pavilions and people. Instead, there are cliffs, and the vista beyond of the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys — a vast oceanic-like expanse reaching to the horizon.
Have you finished photographing at Thacher Park?
Yes. Besides, in the past year, I’ve developed a lame leg, making it difficult to negotiate rough terrain, let alone the steep iron ladders descending beneath the cliffs to the Indian Ladder Trail. I was able to manage in the past year because my friend, Dieter Gehring, helped me haul down my big cameras and cases.
I guess you won’t miss the four-hour, 170-mile commute, from New York? That comes to eight hours driving time and 340 miles per day.
I once traveled back and forth for six consecutive days because the Park was about to close. In those six days I racked up 2,040 miles. As for whether I will miss the commute? Maybe I will. It was all part of a “lyric journey.”
Why didn’t you just find a motel and stay over?
The closest motel was in Albany, 20 miles away. Changing film in a motel is a challenge. Bathrooms and closets are too small, the latter also too dusty for loading film. Rooms are impossible to lightproof. I bought the largest changing bag available to change my 11" x 14" film, and even then it was not big enough. In the end I settled for the commute. I got up at 6 am, left New York City by 7 am, arrived at Thacher around 11 am, or a bit later if I took an extended rest stop on the New York State Thruway. I left Thacher at 4 or 5 pm, depending on when I lost my light. (I took 8 to 10 sheets of film with me, usually exposing all before leaving). I would get back to New York at 8 or 9 in the evening. I would then unload and reload film in my darkroom if I planned to go out the next day. It was also nice to be in my own home.
Any last thoughts about Thacher Park and the Indian Ladder Trail?
Just what I remember overhearing and seeing when I was photographing on the Trail. A young boy was taking pictures of his mother and grandmother, directing them where to stand — or so it appeared. It turned out that he had no camera and was only pretending to take pictures. When asked if he got any good shots, he said he had many. But they were only “pretend pictures, not real ones,” because that way he would never lose them.
The inevitable question: What next?
I really don’t know.