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[Photography] An Interview with Roger Camp

By A.M. Larks

Creative people, in my experience, tend to be creative in whatever endeavor they pursue. Roger Camp embodies this adage. He was a professor (of both English and photography) and a book reviewer for many years, but also a photographer with fine art and commercial credits to his name—and now he is a poet. In each of his endeavors, Camp is highly accomplished whether that be as the two-time recipient of the NISOD Excellence Award for innovation in teaching and learning, the recipient of the Leica Medal of Photography, the author of three photography books, or as the poet whose work has appeared in such prestigious publications as The North American Review, Southern Poetry Review, and Poetry East and Nimrod International Journal Award 40. To top it all off, his archive of over forty years of fine art photography was acquired by the library at University of California, Santa Barbara, Special Research Collections this summer. What strikes me about Camp, is not so much his storied career (although it is quite impressive) but it is that Camp, the man, is—in all he does, all of those things—a poet, a professor, and a photographer. He is an artist in the way he sees the world, poetic in his responses, knowledgeable and well-versed in photographic craft, and above all a teacher.

Camp and I caught up over email, and during the course of our conversation, I gained a larger understanding of a form art (photography) I thought I knew a lot about. It just goes to show that the best teachers never really retire.

[Kelp Journal] I always find it interesting to see why artists choose photography over say, other forms of artistic expression. I read that you picked it up early in high school where you learned it from a library book. What was it that drew you to photography?

[Roger Camp] Being a poet as well as a photographer, I’ve read countless interviews where poets have answered a similar question. Most often, they started writing at a very young age, essentially when they were children. I do know that age ten, I realized I wasn’t very good at drawing unlike Janet Norby, a classmate of mine who could draw horses effortlessly. On the other hand, I have a number of photos I took at age ten that were not snapshots but carefully composed images. One is of a series of dry docked boats whose upturned hulls made for an interesting study of repeated forms. Another image is of Yosemite Falls taken from an elevated point of view after climbing high up into a pine tree. Why would I know to do such a thing? I believe creativity, regardless of what form it takes, is a gift you are born with. After I was given a 35mm camera as a graduation gift from junior high, I began to take photography more seriously. I would take my film to the drugstore for processing but I was always disappointed in the prints I got back. They never seemed to match my expectations. As you mention, in high school I checked a book out of the library and set up a darkroom in my dad’s woodshop. The very first print I made (which I still have), a formal portrait of our family dog, was so far superior to the prints from the drugstore, I made all my own prints ever after.

[KJ] You have mentioned in an interview with the UC Santa Barbara library that because of a graduate color class that’s how you found your niche in color photography versus black and white. As a long-time photography teacher and the winner of two NISOD awards, are those the types of experiences that influenced how you teach?

[RC] I clearly remember the moments before I taught my first class, an English 100 course at Eastern Illinois University. I realized with just minutes to go that I had no experience whatsoever as there was no such thing as classes on how to teach. So, I thought of my favorite professor, Lawrence Willson at UCSB, and used him as my model. I think if you ask anyone to review their education they can usually name several outstanding teachers. Again, I think great teachers are born. Sure, you can be taught how to organize and present information more effectively, but gifted teachers have a feeling for their audience just like stand-up comics. You have to be flexible, honest, passionate, posses a great sense of humor, and truly care about the well-being of all your students. Students instinctively know within five minutes of the first class meeting if you are going to be a good teacher. A good teacher will constantly be revising her/his presentations. I remember one semester teaching back-to-back beginning photography classes. If an explanation didn’t work well in the first class, I would try something different for the second class.

[KJ For those readers who aren’t aware, color photography was not always considered fine art, can you talk about what it was like to fight for the legitimacy of your form? What must it be like for you or your students that now the public view of black and white is the less frequently considered form?

[RC] I’m pleased you asked that question. Consider for a moment the two most popular magazines of the 1940s and 1950s, Life Magazine and The Saturday Evening Post. All the photographers for those magazines photographed in black and white. When Life published a series of time exposures of a bullfight by Ernst Hass in color it was considered earth breaking. To my knowledge he was the only photographer of his generation to work in color. When I was a grad student in photography at the University of Iowa, a catalog of the six top photo graduate schools in the country with six students from each program included was published. Of the thirty-six images, only one was in color. That was in 1974. When I started sending out portfolios of images to galleries, I would often get a reply that they did not carry color photography as it was “too commercial.” Sometimes, the reason was that color wasn’t archival, which was true. All too often, though, it was ignorance and tradition that ruled their decision. I remember going to a lecture by a major photo historian who trotted out the view that seeing in color was inferior to seeing in black and white. Interestingly, most photography programs still offer black and white classes. When I retired ten years ago from teaching, students still wanted to take darkroom photography over digital photography. Their reasoning was the magic of watching a print come up in a tray of developer as opposed to pressing the button of a printer.

[KJ] At Kelp Journal we often ask our photographers what they look for in framing a shot and many photographers have a specific subject or a few subjects that they prefer to focus on, but in your career, you have photographed so many different subjects, like scenes of Southern California life, architecture, nature, and botanies—and in so many different styles: portrait, sports, journalistic, and still life. What is it you look for in framing a shot? What draws you to the photos you take?

[RC] Over the years, I’ve noticed numerous artists (including photographers) have one

or two good ideas, which too often they repeat ad infinitum for their entire career. I’ve consciously made an effort not repeat myself nor the work of others. What’s the point of taking photographs like Ansel Adams? Unless you are able to add something of your own to the canon, you are just cluttering the field. In conversations with other photographers, I’ve discovered that I’m ruthless in my editing. I don’t keep every negative or slide I’ve taken. In fact, I eliminate ninety percent of the work. Often times, I’ll take a photo knowing that it will not be successful, but I want a record I can study to see why that might be. Then I can discard it. To answer your question more directly, when I am shooting outside of a studio, I never have anything in mind, so I am drawn to a variety of subjects. Probably the most common thing to get my attention is lighting, followed by color. Then it’s down to rarity. Have I seen this before? Is there something extraordinary about the context? Mystery and narrative often figure in as well. With street photography and the work I did from the Huntington Beach pier timing is everything. Cartier Bresson was correct. If you strategically place yourself and wait for something to happen, it often will. Picasso used the metaphor of a hunter in wait. Same idea.

[KJ When talking about specific subjects, you are the author of three photography books and all are so different from one another. For your book, Butterflies in Flight, can you talk about what inspired that series?

[RC] I was toying with the idea of photographing butterflies but not as a nature photographer. I thought there might be a way of creating the illusion of flight in my studio. I spent a year compiling a list of the world’s most beautiful butterflies by consulting dozens of books that were often rare and out of print. With that list in hand, I found four different suppliers of butterflies around the world and began to collect as many of the butterflies on my list as I could. All of my efforts to photograph the butterflies in the studio failed. At the same time, Photoshop was coming into being. My wife, who was a graphic designer, persuaded me to

learn Photoshop. I discovered that I could take a butterfly that was ready for mounting (essentially flat) and scan it on a flat bed scanner, producing a much more detailed image than a photograph. After cutting this image out of its background, I could alter it in such a way as to create some semblance of flight.

[KJ] In the same way as Butterflies in Flight is not your ordinary nature book Butterflies in Flight is also not your ordinary coffee table art book. I think most people would not be expecting a book whose pages are connected accordion style and extend out for twenty-three feet. Can you talk about why you choose to format in the traditional Japanese style?

[RC] When I was a young man, I gave my mother a copy of Kanzaka’s Sekka’s 1904 classic Japanese orihon (accordion style book) that was reproduced as a facsimile edition under the title A Flight of Butterflies. The original book was entitled One Thousand Kind of Butterflies and all the subjects were wood block inventions of the artist. My mother left this book open on the bookcase that sat above her dining room table. As an adult, I would see this every time I dined with my parents. That in turn, led me to the accordion format of my book. By the way, the book is dedicated to my mother, who was a park naturalist late in life and who passed on her love of nature to me as a child. Some wonderful things came about as a result of the accordion style format. One British couple had the entire twenty-three-foot long book framed and mounted above their bed, which was then featured in a major UK architecture magazine. Numerous others informed me they had mounted the book on their walls!

[KJ] What a compliment and what an accomplishment. I would certainly be daunted when trying to put out another book. Your next book, 500 Flowers, was also a success in that there are portraits of so many flowers all in bloom at the same time, it’s like the best version of a garden in your hands. How did this book come about?

[RC] I’m impressed that you recognized the original intent of the book because that is

exactly what I wanted to create, a world-wide garden that could be in bloom simultaneously regardless of the season. I believe the idea came about through my travels after seeing many of the same plants abroad that are grown here in Southern California. In researching this book, I was astounded by the number of plants grown here that originated from somewhere else, often times from very exotic locales.

[KJ] It is interesting how many of our favorite plants have their origins somewhere else. Photography still life, especially natural still life, can be especially difficult because that’s all there is in the photo, the one object. I am curious as to how you find the personality (for lack of a better word) of each specimen?

[RC] I think all of us probably have our favorites when it comes to flowers. In terms of the book, however, I was primarily drawn to color, shape, and texture. I visited numerous botanical gardens in order to introduce a wide variety of plants, many less commonly known.

[KJ] Color, shape, and texture are also a feature in your next book, Heat, which is a more risqué subject than your previous, more natural-world subjects. Where did you get the inspiration to capture still images from blocked adult television channels? When did you begin taking the shots for this series?

[RC] In 1988, I was operated on for colon cancer. During my recovery, which lasted several months, I laid on the couch and read, listened to recordings of stand-up comedy, and occasionally watched TV. At that time, there was an adult channel that required a subscription. If you weren’t a subscriber, like myself, the channel was scrambled. But you could still recognize vague images that flashed intermittently over the screen. I wondered if they could be captured, so I set up a camera with a motor drive on a tripod, focused the lens on the screen and with a twenty-foot cable release, I would take a picture if anything interesting appeared. It was challenging and it distracted me from the pain of the operation and the ensuing chemotherapy I had to undergo. I didn’t have the energy to look at the photos until six months had passed. There was a very high failure rate. I kept perhaps two frames out of every 36-exposure roll of film.

[KJ] There is a very meta-aspect to the entire project capturing images from new technology (television) using an old technology (photography). I am curious about your intention behind the use of the distortion in the images. Does it allow the viewer to focus on what they see not on what is blocked out? Does it elevate the subject for this from pornography and into art?

[RC] I touched on this question in the foreword to Heat so I’d like to quote from that here. “The adult video is an illusion. Its dismemberment into distorted and unpredictable images, removed from any narrative continuity, is yet another degree removed from reality. One could argue that capturing individual stills from the television screen would return the process to the real world…Regardless of the intention, what intrigued me about the images was not their erotic content so much as how the distortion often created images of beauty and grotesquerie far more powerful that the original video. There is irony in the notion that by attempting to block the broadcast of the video, a more visually arresting work resulted.”

[KJ] I think it interesting that there is now a movement where the public is looking at photography in the bigger picture, questioning overall narratives especially as it relates to places and peoples? Do you believe this is something that photographers should consider when taking or exhibiting photos?

[RC] I don’t believe artists (including photographers) should ever consider any outside influences. What separates commercial art from fine art is the separation from your audience. Obviously, if you are a photojournalist, you must be clear about the context of your images. At the same time, I don’t believe a photojournalist should cater to the whims of the public but should instead rely on her/his own integrity and honesty.

AM Larks (she/her) writes fiction, nonfiction, children's literature, and drama. Her writing has appeared in Scoundrel Time, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Five on the Fifth, Charge Magazine, and the Zyzzyva and Ploughshares blogs. She has performed her stories at Lit Up at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, California. She is the current photo/visual arts editor at Kelp Journal, a multimedia literary revue, and the former fiction editor at Please See Me literary magazine as well as the former blog editor of The Coachella Review. AM Larks earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, a Juris Doctorate, and most recently a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University California Riverside Palm Desert's low residency program. She is a longtime patron of the arts and enjoys stories that capture the complexities of life on the page or screen.


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