Photography is the art of discovery and observation. It is about finding the unexpected in ordinary settings and capturing the beauty and wonders of life at specific moments in time. Giving new perspectives to what otherwise might be missed, or considered banal, is one of the missions of photography — of seeing and capturing emotion and all the details that fill our lives.
To the photographer, his or her vocation is a window to the world and a way of expressing oneself. The prominent American photojournalist Burk Uzzle once said that photography “is a love affair with life.”
Today, photography is no longer dominated by highly-trained, professional artists. Digital gadgets and smartphones have made it easy for ordinary people to capture their own photos of daily life, landscapes and events without being specifically knowledgeable about the medium and how to handle a camera.
Photography is essential to journalism. Newspapers, magazines and online outlets are thirsty for exclusive still images related to the stories they publish. The importance of photography to the press is reflected in the fact that there are two award categories in the Pulitzer Prizes for breaking news and feature photography.
Brad Temkin is an American photographer born in 1956 in Chicago, Illinois. He is renowned for his photographs of contemporary and natural landscapes. Since 1984, he has been an adjunct professor at Columbia College. Temkin’s images have been featured in such outlets as Aperture, Black & White Magazine, Time magazine and China Photo. His work has been recognized through several fellowships and awards, including an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in 2007 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2017. He has a special interest in capturing and exploring “the human impact on contemporary landscapes by documenting urban rooftop gardens and green roofs.”
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Brad Temkin about his work of art and the importance of photography in carrying artistic messages about life and nature.
The transcript has been edited for clarity. The interview took place earlier this year.
Kourosh Ziabari: The themes you explore in your photos are dominated by a concern for the environment and human’s impact on the landscape. Do you agree with the term “photography for sustainable development” to be used to describe your work? As an artist, do you personally have environmental concerns?
Brad Temkin: My work is first about making pictures. Next is my desire to learn about the subject I am drawn to. Our impact on the environment is always an issue. My relationship with nature and the environment drive much of my subject, but I’d say the work focuses more on the positive — vs. negative — things we do with the environment. I like the way we fix things.
Ziabari: Why did you start photographing the Rooftop series? Were you looking to capture the architectural beauty of the buildings or were you interested in the idea of green roofs?
Temkin: As with most of my other series, each one is informed by others. Rooftop came from my Private Places work. I was printing an exhibition for City of Chicago and heard this piece on NPR about Chicago’s green initiative. I found it interesting, and it was talking about these “rooftop” gardens. I thought, “Wow, that seems interesting. I wonder what they look like?” I asked people for some help with access and found that the gardens I was interested in were not rooted in gardening or the things we do in gardens, but instead a way to mitigate our carbon footprint. They helped insulate buildings, causing less HVAC [heating, ventilation and air conditioning], and they reduced “heat island” effect and was a way to deal with stormwater management. Since I lived in Chicago, I figured it was a good place to start.
Ziabari: You teach photography at Columbia College in Chicago. What are the main skills you teach? What do the young, aspiring photographers need to do to excel in the profession and become venerable names in photography?
Temkin: Besides the obvious of teaching how to use a camera and better understand the fundamental “how to” with process and materials, I like to think I guide them to a better understanding of their intent and self-awareness from making these pictures.
Ziabari: Tell us about your Private Places project, which you turned into a book. What kind of reaction did you receive from the families and households whose gardens you wanted to photo? Did you face any resistance or reluctance?
Temkin: Of course there is always some resistance from someone you don’t know photographing your private space, but for the most part, people were all very generous. They saw I was sincere in my intent and that I was genuinely interested in what they had created. After spending time photographing, they would tell me to visit friends’ gardens they admired. It is a positive network. Gardening is an art form in itself. People build their gardens with personal things in them. The gardens are like portraits of the people behind them. You can see the person behind the garden just as you can see the personality of an artist, poet, etc. I guess they also saw my sincere fascination with gardening and their lives.
Ziabari: Urban photography or nature photography — which one fascinates and inspires you the most?
Temkin: Both! It always depends on the intent of the author. I’m more interested in work that reflects the author’s awareness and clarity of intent. Strong composition and good technique are “givens,” but I always like to learn something from what I see.
Ziabari: In the digital age, many people, especially the young, seek refuge in smartphones, electronic games, betting and dating websites, social networks and other online platforms to fill the gaps in their daily lives and find a solution to loneliness and difficulties. How can photography help the perplexed human being of the 21st century with their many questions and challenges?
Temkin: The camera gives us permission to stare. By stopping and “seeing,” we ask questions. These questions tell us who we are. Hopefully, we listen and it teaches us about ourselves.
Ziabari: Photography is an essential component of print and online journalism. What qualities should press photographers have to do well in their job, make a profit and respond to the growing demands of the news-thirsty audience?
Temkin: Tough question. As a press photographer, you want to “get the shot,” but I think it is important to do it as honestly as possible. I don’t mean not to have a position, because everyone should have a position, but to understand your position while respecting others.
Ziabari: Is it realistic to view photography as a problem solver? Or is it simply a messenger? For example, can we expect photography to be part of global efforts to mitigate the impact of global warming and fight climate change? Or is photography only a means to draw public attention to environmental challenges the world faces today?
Temkin: I think it is more of a messenger. It can help to solve problems, but the photographer needs to be aware of their intent, and who they are, their audience and how to make work that asks questions that will inspire conversation. After all, photographs that [elicit] questions and surprise are the most interesting to me.
Ziabari: Do you agree that the expertise of photography, how to operate the camera, work with various lenses, image sensors, films and photo editing software are skills that can be taught and learnt, while artistic talent and intelligence are inborn and cannot be acquired even with extensive studying, and this is what determines the difference between photographers?
Temkin: Yes. However, the difference comes from hard work, commitment and willingness to see the truth in your work. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Edit yourself.
Ziabari: What are you currently working on? What are your upcoming projects about?
Temkin: I am currently working with water, and the transformation that occurs during reclamation from sludge to pure. I am interested in bringing attention to the importance of water, which is something we take for granted. It’s been really rich and seems like an inexhaustible subject right now. That will probably change and morph into something else related, or not. I never like to repeat myself.
*[Images in this article are the property of Brad Temkin. © All rights reserved.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.