Elliott Linwood Interviews Bill Dane
August 16, 1991
Elliott Linwood = EL
Bill Dane = BD
EL: How did you end up switching from painting to photography?
BD: I switched dramatically from painting to photography when my studio burned down. I had two studio burns. One was about three months before I was due to have a show in January 1970 in the Reese Palley Gallery on Maiden Lane in San Francisco. I came home in November one night to my studio/living space in West Oakland to find fire hoses laid side-by-side filling the whole block. As I got closer I realized it was my place.
I borrowed a friend's studio over on San Pablo above the Albatross Bar and painted for a couple of months, made the show over, and of course it turned out to be something quite different--better.
EL: What kind of pictures?
BD: Big color field paintings inspired by Stella and Noland and Morris Lewis. I was already interested in mail, conceptual, process, and environmental art and that got me started using a camera at the same time I was painting the show.
I used a camera to photograph things that interested me in the environment from what was my "environmental artist's" point of view. I'd take pictures of compressed paper, different formations, uncompleted bridge structures, etc. But I was basically snapshooting at the end of 1969.
In the show was included a plexiglass rack which was in a pattern similar to my paintings which were based on grid systems, squares and weaves. I made a 16-pocket plex photo card holder and put stacks of postcards, prints that I'd been taking and having commercially produced at 3"x5" along with a little sign that invited people to help themselves. I'd already started to mail these around. I'd come in about once a week to replenish all the stacks.
That was part of the show, plus these big color field paintings which were human size and a couple of sculptures--process sculptures that were maybe 10'x20', pieces of clear plastic hanging from the ceiling which I had spray painted with pastel colors, probably using about 10-20 cans. This hanging piece of plastic had a misty atmospheric look to it. And there were the misty leftovers of what paint floated down to the floor.
There were also a couple of other plastic spray-painted pieces and that was it, which turned out to be the end of painting for me. I took the paintings and put them in the back of Bill's studio and, later that summer, got a call that it had all burned down. That was two fires, and I figured a pretty clear-cut message.
I was already more interested in other things. I basically thought that Lewis, Noland and Stella would do or had done what I was interested in and I could see down the end of that line, which began to seem like a pretty dead-end thing to me because I didn't have the technical training or the desire to go back and do a kind of Picasso 16- to 21-year-old education. I had no interest in investigating things in that manner even though I loved to do the paintings.
The first fire left me with a leather jacket, some cowboy boots, a black hat and a used camera. I was convinced after the first fire that I was just going to re-make the show because I was obligated and then move on. I was already mostly taking pictures.
I must say I really wanted to work in a medium that had me out in public where things were happening. Spending all this time in a studio by myself and then having a couple of people come by and make some comments once in a while wasn't really satisfactory. So photography was really perfect for me because I got out where everybody else was. And then it also worked well with the mailing thing, where I could create my own audience and didn't have to wait and depend on some critic, gallery or museum decisions. I found that aspect very important.
I was also really curious about Warhol. Everything he did at the time made sense to me--and not in any sort or academic way--it felt right, like the anti-masterpiece idea made a lot of sense to me, that art could be brought "down," demystified, made accessible. Of course in the guise of banality comes an aesthetic that requires special sophistication and, once again, art moves away from any general public. My mailing of 3"x5" postcards of casually taken snapshots--casual to most observers--fit in very well with everything that was moving around in my mind at the time. It was also a relatively inexpensive medium. I was really offended by giant conceptual process art extravaganzas. The money thing was always a problem for me. I don't mean to sound too self-righteous, but Christo's Running Fence for example, that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, was pretty offensive. And, to be spending money like that at this time in history (or probably any time) when it could just as well be done as an idea and put down on paper and communicated conceptually...like Oldenburg's drawings.
EL: How did you go from a background in political science to your work? What was the bridge?
BD: When you go to Berkeley and you have two or more years of poli-sci and run across this very mediocre teaching, except for a couple of people, there just wasn't any inspiration to speak of. By my last semester I knew I was not a future graduate student. I only had a few A's in poli-sci and those were in political theory classes. So it looked like I was either going to have to go to graduate school and teach political theory someplace, but in 1964 many things became painfully clear to me. I originally thought I wanted to be in the State Department when I was a teenager. I thought I wanted to be in international relations--I spoke Russian and had a good command of German. But by the time I finished at Cal in 1964 I certainly wasn't going to be a part of U.S. government activities. The Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam ended all that for me.
Neither at that time did I want to teach history or social studies in high school. So in my last semester I went over to the Art Department just to fill up my requirements now knowing quite what I was going to do.
I took a drawing class with the only friend I had at Cal. I changed majors and in a year and a summer session I had a degree in art. I made friends over there, which was very important. The camaraderie of fellow students in art was so different than what I experienced in political science.
I'd done some drawing and stuff as a kid and painted a couple kind of wonderful pictures, one in the fifth grade when I had my one good teacher, and one when I was a teenager playing on the weekends with the oil set my mom got me. I just sort of made up a picture out of my head, my one and only oil painting--the Ku Klux Klan gathered around in their hoods burning a black man they had just hung.
EL: How old were you then?
BD: I was probably 16.
EL: Was this in Pasadena?
BD: Yes, Sierra Madre. I never really remembered it until I took this U.C. art class, the pleasure of doing art was natural for me.
I also showed slides as a job for a year and a half at Cal. So I got to look at all this art work without having to study the academic part. I decided to work in factories after I got my B.A. and just be an artist. That worked for about a year, driving a Yellow Cab and working in factories. That obviously wasn't going to do it, so I went back and got a teaching credential and was lucky enough to get a job teaching at Berkeley High school in 1966 and have been doing it ever since.
EL: Your political science background may provide clues to your work, which appears very political to me.
BD: Yes, well it never has to most people.
In my work there is no substitute for taking each picture on it's own terms, because I think each picture is very different. To call my work political to me means that I'm just looking at the surface of our society and the images that are presented to us. (And of course by the time they get to me they are parts of those images due to framing.) So in that sense, and in any different sense, I would be as political as I could, getting everything that can deeply engage me into my work. Godard had a couple of hours to do a film and some years to think about doing it. He said that he wanted to get everything about life into his movies. That seems to me to be what it's all about.
In photography there are little pieces which you collect along the way...different kinds, but the goal is the same--to discover, investigate, hunt for everything you can find that makes sense to you about what's going on. Then you present these things to yourself and others, and push not to duplicate something that's already been done by somebody else like Atget, Picasso, Pollack, Evans, Frank--inspired by, yes.
EL: Past newspaper articles say you were influenced by Ed Ruscha.
BD: That's because his were the first photographs I saw that led me to understand that photography was a medium that was potentially amazing. When I saw his parking lot series of pictures they made sense to me. Generally I'm not interested in what passes for conceptual art.
I hadn't seen Atget or Robert Frank until Bill gave me The Americans and said, I think this is one of the things you are looking for. That same year I saw Szarkowski give a slide show of Winnogrand's work at MOMA when I went back to New York to visit a friend who coincidentally was the photo intern there. This was the first year I knew about photography and it all added to the rationale for my doing it. Winnogrand's pictures made complete and inspirational sense to me.
The next day I saw Jerry Uelsmann give a lecture. I didn't know who he was, but I said to myself, this is probably the silliest stuff I've ever seen. He has a very good sense of humor and he was entertaining NYU students. I looked in the other direction. I'm looking for something different, little known.
EL: How does your work relate to street photography?
BD: My way of working is plugging away. I'm not athletic like Friedlander or Winnogrand. I don't have that kind of vision, coordination. I was out on the street looking like everyone else, but my images have gotten more and more isolated.
EL: The recent color work is close-up and doesn't have the social styling of the earlier black and white work.
BD: It's usually of parts of stuff that other people have made or set up, but my attitude on this adventure, my modus is the same...walk and look, walk and look, walk and look.
EL: What about your signature use of the flash in many of your images. It seems to do certain things.
BD: Most of the time I like to get the flash involved because I like the way it looks in the finished print. Bertold Brecht had this notion of the alienation effect, which were devices he could use in his plays to throw the spectator back out on themselves so that they didn't get absorbed like you're supposed to get absorbed into a Hollywood movie and be sucked away and lose consciousness and be manipulated into having an experience of somebody else's. He had the idea he wanted people to reflect upon what they were seeing and get back to themselves. There was a distance created with his alienation effect, so people could think, for example, and wouldn't become submerged in the spectacle.
In any case, that's one thing that the flash does. It lets you know it's a photograph you're looking at and bounces you, as the flash bounces, back out of the picture and makes it harder to go into the picture, keeping some distance. Every picture is different and the flash functions uniquely even as this generalization is fun to talk about.
EL: Brecht is an interesting reference in theatrical terms.
BD: I prefer him because he was so overtly political. I feel my pictures are psycho-political.
EL: The flash effect in the older black and white work amplified a newsier quality.
BD: I don't think I was using the flash with that consciousness because I don't think the flash does anything more than merely illuminates in most of those pictures. Now there were some pictures where the flash started to come back at me as I got closer to something, especially when I was working around glass. And that probably began to feed me these notions. It's now an ingredient. But it's pretty tricky. It can go too far. Photography, like painting, needs everything perfect. When you finally present a photograph, as you edit them, they have to be perfect. It amounts to organizing a rectangle as in painting, and something like the flash effect has to be perfect.
EL: The prints are getting bigger. How does size work?
BD: I can't tell yet. I'm too close to this. When I was painting human size pictures I knew exactly why I was doing it. I wanted them to be human size so that the exchange would be on human scale. In photography I originally became accustomed to postcard size pieces. I like the way the pictures look big.
It's an in-between scale now and plays with the thing that I photographed. Obviously something of the experience of my work has to do with the size which it's presented and the tension between that and the scale you either know or imagine the object was in the real world.
There are reasons why photography is a loaded, potentially poignant and exciting medium. One of these has to do with different kinds of tension between the photograph presented and the world or the reality you took a picture of, which is another kind of reality entirely. The tension between those two worlds and the viewer is probably the thing, in my estimation--outside of course what I'm taking a picture "of," like content; form and content--which makes photograph a different thing. It's a medium that "apparently" gives you back (if you're a still photographer like I am) something that existed there on some level.
Even though most people still don't seem to understand how manipulative photography is--how it drastically changes experience--if it didn't, it wouldn't be so magical. A clue as to why photography is so wonderful is that it does its own thing; it creates a new reality.
EL: As recently as Szarkowski's 1978 Windows and Mirrors show, photography was viewed either as a transparent medium that offered faithfully detailed representations of the world, a window of sorts, or a mirror, a vehicle of subjective psychological artifice. Where did you fit into that show?
BD: I'm in the book from that show and can't remember whether I'm a window or a mirror. Is a mirror a surrealist, like Dali, who makes up all this gobbledygook? With me and some good dead mirror like, let's say Man Ray, it's a continuum. I'm probably in the middle between Uelsmann and Winnogrand. But I really don't understand photography in these terms.
EL: Your images seem to communicate they are photographs as objects, not portals to reality, but rather Bill Dane's camera mediation of the world.
BD: Sounds good!
EL: There are many characteristics besides the use of the flash in your work that reveal photography as a loaded medium. Many images are of artifacts framed at their edges, where artifice leaves off. For example, there happen to be lots of things with their seams showing as an integral part of the picture.
BD: It's another piece of information. It does influence the perception of space--enlarges it just enough (like the flash reflection) to keep it from going too flat.
EL: It's interesting since the surface of a photograph has often been read as something
BD: There is not a seam in every picture. There are only a few where you can find them--if the image was painted on a panel that has a seam in it. So I'm not sure how useful that is unless you consistently notice all the other "evidence" in the work.
EL: Like wood graining or other telltale signs?
BD: But if the point is that I'm making artifacts, this should probably be reframed. I'm actually using artifacts, or you might say "discovering" artifacts or re-presenting them. It's almost like attaining another generation of recognition for different peoples' work, which of course wasn't created in the same context that I do.
Each image begins and ends with itself in a certain sense. When you're talking about this you have to respect the way I actually work. Basic stuff like what do I do when I go out to take pictures. What happens! How do I do this?
Let me just say what I don't do. I don't go out there was a program in my mind. I haven't written anything down in advance to fill in this gap or that theory. To the extent that intuition is any kind of independently operating system, I go out in the street just with the equipment that I bring with me--by that I mean my mood, mindset, what I'm thinking about--family, country, whatever it is. I go out carrying this collection of stuff that's been heaped on me or that I've digested or ingested and I walk down the street.
So, I physically walk down the street or go into the museum. Now, there are places that I don't go with the camera, like into the forest. I've tried it and it doesn't work! It makes no sense to me whatsoever. I love to be there. But to be there with a camera creates a kind of fearful feeling that I don't want, because I'm telling myself that there ought to be something here that I could make a photograph out of or investigate or explore to see what it would look like photographed.
I walk into the street to take pictures and look at everything I can possibly see. And I love all kinds of stuff. By love I mean I'm engaged by all kinds of things--peoples' faces especially. But I can only take pictures of certain stuff. It's been that way from day one. Although I'm aware of many kinds of photographic approaches, it's impossible for me to be engaged except by certain things. So I walk along with my psyche and collective history and look and look, and finally I take these pictures.
I maybe end up only loving five or ten pictures a year if I'm lucky. But here I've currently got a wall full, a hundred pictures or more, and right now I love them all. Editing is very painful because I don't know right now what's good and what isn't. Hopefully, in a year or so I'll know which five add to the dialogue of the past 30,000 years.
This theoretical stuff, writing and flights of fancy, and turning the work into a poetry of a different kind, the job of the critic, doesn't always make sense to me. I can be drawn into this kind of discussion but it's a level I don't operate on usually.
If you look at the decisions that gallery makers and museum people and critics are making--if you look at the manifestation of decisions from magazines to museums--this is a sorry time. I gather that they need to produce some artworks of all different kinds that can be called great. It must be a very ambiguous, demanding and dignity-crushing situation for a person to be in, relating to this marketplace. Terrible and offensive. There are so many art people now, the exponential explosion from 18 guys in Paris at the turn of the century. Against any of that, my business is to make hard-nose decisions about my own work and forget the rest.
For instance, each piece is different. And if they're different to me, then they may have aspects to them that can't be generalized together. They may each be doing something else. I don't explore my own photographs with words very often and put the experience into words. Surely, I must be talking to myself. When showing slides of my work I have to articulate some of the ingredients or pointers that will allow people a little insight into what I think I'm doing. I think by sitting here and looking at this stuff. I take each photograph to be a difference experience--a relatively independent experience--part of a minor epic poem I'm composing.
EL: There is a thematic to your work in the sense it is not portraiture, landscape or manipulated photography. It's straight photography of human-made things or artifacts.
BD: They are what they are, once again. I mean you can call them artifacts if you need a shorthand. But then each picture is so curiously a different kind of thing that I found. Of course, I am on this treasure hunt. I'm like the little kid that got the list but there was nothing on the list. He was just told to go out and find fantastic things. And that's what I get to do. There is the thought of prizes.
Outside of listening to Mozart or looking at your kids and playing with them or being with your partner...this is pleasure.
EL: But there's alienation and humor in this treasure hunt.
BD: Negativity doesn't limit pleasure. It's an ingredient. That's where the psycho-politics or whatever you want to call it comes in. I'm looking for something that seems completely right on, so completely truthful I can say, "Yes, that's the way it is." That's one of the ways I've described myself reacting to something that I find. The pleasure of synthesizing experience in an image. Later I have to print the photograph and look at it. But when I find something, it's like this recognition, "Wow. let's see what that will look like photographed." It often is very poignant itself, but let's see if photography won't take it to a different level.
I have photographed pieces of other people's artworks and I would say that my photographs will take a piece of some artifact and take it to a level that is much more complicated than the way it originally existed (for me). A big part of this is framing obviously, what's in and what's out, which is one of these tensions in photography, and what's on the edges.
[Footnote: Omit following photo descriptions absent referent:]
Let's look at individual photographs. Each one of these things is very different. I mean just to go through one row: The bricks or the fake bricks for all I know, to take that row with the cowboy in it; the fake bricks on the side of a bowling alley, a piece of the wall in a bowling alley; the cowboy was part of an advertisement from a store window in Encino; the two women holding on to each other or whatever they're doing on the side of a porno adult place in San Francisco; a puzzle falling apart or coming together, I don't know, whatever it's doing. At a county fair, on a table for some reason [chortling] is this puzzle someone has partially glued into place; next one over, a part of one of those weaving things my sister-in-law did; next picture, a piece out of a newspaper that was glued onto a window in San Francisco of some gym, a fraction of that; next row down is an advertising from a bank, that sailboat with the dollar bills for sails; the one to the left of that is off a wall at a sea museum, pouring metal, who the hell knows why; something from a drugstore window with apothecary jars painted on plywood; next thing is from the side of a pinball or video machine, that bridge falling, you know; next over is from that same apothecary window; the last one in that row is of the side of a truck that was delivering--happened to be sitting there when I walked by--at Columbus and Vallejo--parked because the guy was delivering whiskey--I looked up and that was part of the image in the advertising on the side of this whiskey bottle.
[End of missing referent]
EL: Your photos are taken in public. For example, you don't search newspapers or books to find your images. And there is something that the viewer can detect about a public vs. a "media" context. It shows you don't employ strict appropriationist tactics.
BD: What do you mean by that?
EL: From looking at your images one detects that you didn't lift someone's else's "finished" work directly, somehow you communicate these objects or traces were found in oddly specific contexts.
BD: Appropriation is one of these words, right? Well, my pictures are simply out of context. That's the whole thing. If you have to talk about why my pictures are effective, it's partly because they are "out of context" and it creates this tension that you as the viewer, someplace in your mind, struggle to place the image in a context. Because they are out of context this increases part of the challenge and excitement, part of the puzzle and the fun.
EL: Do you see yourself as an anthropologist?
BD: I told you this is a treasure hunt for me!--to investigate, perhaps discover pieces of our story--yes.
EL: Ethnography is currently being reexamined and revised for its historical relationship to surrealism.
BD: Well, the juxtapositions involving this "out of context" current in my work isn't merely clashing one cultural item against another. If my work has surrealist qualities at all, it's more in the person's brain who's viewing it, who wants to place the image content within some understandable context--or the idea to link it to the possible context that it came out of. But this also applies to the juxtaposition of any photograph to another hanging next to it, that makes each very strange. Or...the idea of other people's photographs that float around as you look at this one. If that's surrealism, fine.
In other words, I don't have to go to Japan, for instance, to take myself outside of my own culture, to make things look strange or exaggerated. I can do it anywhere I go. I also may not understand your question and perspective.
EL: What do you think of the Little Known status of Bill Dane?
BD: If you mean, why aren't I on the cover of Time periodically, look at my pictures! Referring to my book, Little Known, the reason I called it that was to point out that people don't know my work. Also, there was "little known" about the actual photographs themselves--uncharted seas!
EL: How do you title your pictures?
BD: I usually only title them with the city where they were taken. To go further than that is annoying to me because I'm starting to set up the experience for the viewer. Either to trivialize it by telling them where it is, that is, giving them an out so they can say, "Oh yes, that was taken there. I know that place." Moving on! What's the next photograph, let's take a look at it. It says it's Los Angeles, but obviously that's not LA! But if I tell them it was taken at Disneyland, then pretty soon they start to get an understanding of the picture that isn't necessary. It begins to lead them down this path that they're so used to going.
I've left it at the city. But if I show people my slides, I'll tell them everything I can think of because you have to talk. Maybe I'm afraid of them really dealing with the image or not being able to, or that things would become vacuous, that I fill up the space with talk. It is fun though.
EL: Most people see the images but do they see the work?
BD: I don't know. If they did wouldn't I be rich and famous? This is the best photography that I've ever seen. By that I mean my photographs are as pregnant and poignant as any collection of works of art that I've seen. I think there are many other peoples' works that are more complicated and reflect greater energy and intellect. But I haven't really seen anything that makes this kind of sense to me. Doesn't every artist feel this way?
One of the things about being a high school teacher and parent and whatever else I am, and being social and upset with the art scene, is that I just don't pay attention to that stuff. A couple of years ago I went to all the galleries and museums and found only one or two artists that interested me. One was Anselm Kieffer--Laurie Anderson another. No matter what I believe and perceive, there's only a tiny chance my photographs are as poignant as I find them to be--most art has always been very average--not useless or unworthy or meaningless--just not compelling for me. Anselm Kiefer's large painting/sculptures are absolutely compelling--beyond interpretation, they are magical.
EL: From the beginning you've used the mail to do your art. Why?
BD: I had the idea of creating my own audience. But it's not ideal because postcards are not the best format for my images. And when I started doing this process mail art, I had this subversive intent of using the postal institution to bypass critics, galleries and museums so as many people as possible could see what I was doing. Factors like time and money have conspired to keep me from doing very much mailing anymore. But I still have all these photos in stacks that I do mail periodically.
EL: At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, when you walk into the permanent photo collection section you encounter a dozen black and white postcards framed together as: Greetings From Bill Dane.
BD: Well, they have four or five thousand or so of my postcards. More Bill Dane at the Museum than Atget, quality aside. We're going for quantity here. I will continue to mail to that institution. I started mailing to them naively of course. I am naive, otherwise I wouldn't be sitting here. I heard Szarkowski speak at that time and read his book, The Photographer's Eye, and thought he was the one I wanted to see my pictures because of his very large understanding of photography. So the very first pictures I took I started mailing to him. I figured why mess around, be judged by the best.
I was very lucky to have the show at MOMA and four big grants (two NEAs and two Guggenheims) which gave me the opportunity to have some money and time to spend on photography. It didn't get me an audience. Perhaps this doesn't happen unless someone in power grabs a hold of you and champions you. For example, Szarkowski took Eggleston and put him into the public consciousness--lucky for photography and us.
But I think what I do is even less accessible than Bill Eggleston's photographs. There is something missing in the representation of my work.
EL: Do you mean an explanation or something else? Because they are not easily absorbed by many people.
BD: Apparently. No one who really looks and writes has found them yet--bits and pieces in reviews but nothing systematic. Some people love them but can't really express it.
EL: Are they entertaining?
BD: I think they are and that's an irony. I happen to think that on many levels my pictures are very obvious and entertaining. There are some aspects of my pictures that are as entertaining as things from Hollywood. And there's plenty of humor--light and dark. That's the kind of world we live in. You have to laugh. The world we live in is amazing and my pictures are about the world we live in.
EL: Do you want to talk about anything else?
BD: Books. I want to make books. I wanted Beckett and Böll and Pancake to write the introduction. They're dead, and I may be figuratively on my way too. Books are the way to reach an audience in school communities where people with potential are shaping a future.
Painterly. I'm noticing how painterly many of my images are. I haven't stopped painting. The bigger my photographs get (at 30"x40") the more painterly. I could spend hours on one painting before--now I get to photograph many styles of painting and graphic arts. Also, I've become a co-worker, bring in a new life to parts of other people's creations. What they have done is amazing--especially out of context.
Out of context. Nancy thinks that's why people have trouble connecting with my pictures or understanding them so they can express it verbally. The images are so "out of context" that people lose a frame of reference. Of course they seem relatively obvious to me. But I don't usually have to explain them verbally, and I don't think I can--mine or Kiefer's. But I could point people in the right direction.
I feel grounded in our culture's psychology and politics--absorbed by it. My high school teaching is an extremely cultural activity--un urban school--a place also to make a difference. Photography must be a tangential activity in this sense of affecting change.
Artists communicate with other art-related people in a relatively rarified language. At school I can actually watch people change and grow and become better in many different ways. My photographs are an investigation/treasure hunt in our environment--so they are going to reflect the drama we live. California is turning into a world culture mix with fascinating surfaces to my dread and for my pleasure. But I don't imagine looking at my pictures will erase 20 years of Reagan-Bush or whatever you may wish to erase or remake. We're in as serious trouble as human nature has ever been in and photography will at best reveal some pieces of this reality and offer a very complementary experience.
So this photography amounts to a relatively self-indulgent and personal soul saving pleasure. To the extent that others can receive a bit of the pleasure from my work I have added some ounces to balance the pains.
My favorite arts are say Mozart and tribal masks--my education taught me to value Mozart and now I can't help it. I love it. My gut and other parts tell me to explore our culture and create images which might serve as small icons in some fantastic rituals symbolizing Western culture.