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The Image Archeology of RA Friedman

[An interview with American Photographer RA Friedman]

by Adrian Ioniţă

click pentru versiunea română

I am fascinated by vintage photographs. Their poetic mysteriousness and aged patinas


resonate within me. These images are an exploration of the intersection of old and new,
object and invention, truth and fiction. The long image-making chain that I use leads to
unpredictable results: ambiguous details, distorted spaces, and objects that appear to
live in twilight state between "being" and dissolution.
[RA Friedman]
[Orthochromatic Experiment © 2008 RA Friedman]

Adrian Ioniţă RA, a straightforward question: what is your relationship to Steampunk?

RA Friedman: When I was growing up in the 60's and 70's there were still a lot of turn-
of-the century mechanical antiques around which garnered the interest of only a select
few. Bored by school, I daydreamed a lot, mostly about old stuff. As a kid, I did not read
for pleasure but I did watch a lot of early black and white movies. I didn't care about
popular culture and spent a great deal of my free time combing estate stores in my
neighborhood in the west 70's of Manhattan for whatever treasures I could afford, often
haggling with the shop keepers. What drew me to these things-- old cameras, wind-up
phonographs, and pocket watches were their intrinsic beauty; they were functional
objects but also beautifully crafted and extremely pleasing to the eye. There is sincerity
and authenticity about them that even as a kid, I realized was missing from most of what
was around me. Because I amassed machines to play both lateral (shellac) and vertically
cut (Edison) discs as well as cylinders, I also collected a fair amount of old recordings.
While my contemporaries were listening to the Beatles and Rolling Stones, I was
jumping around to fox trots from the 1920's.

Adrian Ioniţă How did collecting spill over into making art?

RA Friedman: It was not an instantaneous process. I had many false starts, diversions,
and dead ends. I went to college in Binghamton, an old rustbelt city in western New York
filled with old factories and the remains of a once thriving industrially driven culture.
Although I started out in the sciences and was very good at math and physics, it held no
romance for me. I ended up changing my major to set design but never worked
professionally in that field. Through my theatre work, I was caught up in the idea of
inventing believable spaces "out of nothing" which lead to studying drawing with an
uncanny artist/teacher, Charles Eldred. Eldred was living proof that you could live
mythically. He brilliantly combined the old and the new and possessed a
romantic/Renaissance visual spin on the (often-ruined) urban/industrial landscape of
his hometown.
He made phantasmagoric neo-Victorian constructions out of brass and bronze. One of
the last projects he did. Before he died in 1994, was a city modeled after a vanished
Binghamton, complete with buildings that had occuli crafted from little lenses or jewels.
Inside were miniature people carved in metal. He also made large, detailed, but also very
fluid pieces using technical pens and was a master of the Renaissance method of drawing
using silver wire on gessoed paper (silverpoint). It's hard to do this man, this force,
justice in words, but let us just say studying with him was "an immersion"---he opened
up worlds for his students.
Re-connecting to ideas planted by Eldred, in my last year of graduate school I started
making small paintings and collages using Xerox copies of Victorian/ Edwardian
photographs combined with images I had taken myself. I bought my first really good
vintage camera at that time, a Zeiss Ikon Super Ikonta "C," a 6 x 9 cm German roll film
camera from the 1930s. The cameras I had collected up to that time were for display;
this one, while very interesting to look at, was designed for serious use. I could have
easily captured the images I needed using a modern lens, but I felt intuitively drawn to
physically connect with a vintage tool. In retrospect, I realize a view/plate camera would
have come closer in terms of the age of the stuff I was working from, but my Nazi era
camera filled the bill nonetheless. Just a whiff of its leather transported me to the
imaginary lost worlds that were then filling my work.
[Weimar Revisited: Model: Marilynne © RA Friedman]

Adrian Ioniţă How did what you are doing now get its start?

RA Friedman: After grad school, which was in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I moved to
Philadelphia since returning to New York was too daunting. The city I had grown up in
was gone, erased by cookie-cutter development and crass materialism. I liked
Philadelphia's architecture and quaint alleys. It had an "old vibe" and a scale that felt
manageable.
In Philadelphia, I spent eight years trying to put together a cohesive body of new
paintings without much success. Eventually, I just collapsed. I didn't make anything for
about a year. I needed a non-visual outlet, so I started writing poetry again, something I
hadn't done in many years. I had a cheap digital camera that would capture QuickTime
movies and I got the idea of combining the poetry with video. The poems weren't that
great but through making movies, I reengaged visually. I spent a year working on an art
video that was only twelve minutes long.
I probably would have continued to pursue video as an art form, but in May 2005, I was
at my parents' house when a large storage freezer failed. My folks live in the middle of
the mountains in upstate New York; they have to keep well stocked. Amongst the
crystallized ice cream and ten-year-old frozen chickens were about 35, eight-shot rolls of
black and white Polaroid film that my dad had frozen back in the late 1970's when it was
going out of production. My father, not wanting to store the film any longer, gave me all
the film and a very fancy Polaroid 110A camera that had been his. The big question now
was: What do I do with all this?
I wanted to do something that would use up all the film at once. Along with two
colleagues, we set up shop on the street in the area near the hub of the arts district,
during the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, an event modeled after the Edinburgh Fringe.
Everyone pitched in whatever interesting old clothes, hats, accessories, and props they
had and we offered passers-by a free portrait just for joining in. It often took some doing
to convince people that what we were doing this purely for the joy of it and that it wasn't
some kind of scam!
I had previously discovered that when the usually thrown-away paper negatives from
Polaroid film are allowed to dry and then scanned in and reversed, they do some pretty
interesting things. Therefore, while folks on the street were walking away with the
Polaroid positives, I took the supposed "garbage" home, scanned and worked it, then
posted the results online. I dubbed the project "Negative Energy".
It was a natural jump to use this way of working in the studio with more carefully
considered arrangements. When different types of Polaroid film were still available, I
experimented with a number of different film stocks. One particular type, the old
number 72 film, would sometimes create unique images that looked like shattered glass
or peeling billboards. The negative part would be extremely wet and gooey when you first
peeled it off and would often take days to dry. The random action of the film's age, the
humidity, and even wind currents in the room would somehow leave their imprint.

Adrian Ioniţă How are you working now that Polaroid is defunct?

RA Friedman: As the work progressed, I realized that the chance element, though
often adding a fascinating dimension, was not essential; I could easily sully the image in
many interesting and accidental ways by using overlays, many of them lifted from
vintage photos. The important thing is how I experiment with the image, not what
randomly happens. Further it became clear that collaborative interaction with my
subjects as well as how I bend the formal conceits of photography, such as camera,
lighting, and composition are key to my success or failure, rather than a specific image-
making process.

Adrian Ioniţă But still, the way you work today is fairly unusual, is it not?

RA Friedman: In some ways it is, but let me also say I'm open to having anyone try my
methods. I don't believe in mystifying people about what I do technically and leading
them to believe that somehow there is a secret within the materials-- there isn't. My tools
and supplies are available if you look around on places like e-Bay and are not nearly as
expensive as conventional digital photographic gear.
I use whatever instant film I can still get, which for the moment is still made by Fuji in
Japan. I utilize both the positive and the usually tossed-out paper negative, which I scan
and work with on the computer. The negatives often have information, such as texture or
detail in the dark areas that is lacking in the positives. I make the prints, for now, using
an inkjet printer. I may add in elements such as textures, pieces of images and overlays
and manipulate the pieces in Photoshop. I work on an image, leave it, and revisit it until
it feels right.
In the studio, I shoot with an antique camera, often a Crown Graphic, the kind used by
press photographers up until the 1960's. The machine is a built like a tank out of solid
mahogany and aluminum (journalists supposedly used them as shields to fend off police
Billy clubs) and it requires about ten steps before you can trip the shutter. For lighting, I
use a very simple set up: two ordinary 200-watt bulbs in standard photoflood reflectors.
For a backdrop, I use wine colored bed sheet.

[The Finger: Model: Bonnie Quick, Clothes: Rose Sylvester/ The Farmer's Daughter ©
RA Friedman]

Adrian Ioniţă Why don't you use a digital camera?


RA Friedman: It just wouldn't be the same. There is a pace, a kind of stepping out of
the normal, modern time flow, that using a large, analog camera sets in motion; it
creates an air of ceremony, which for me needs to happen when photographer and
subject encounter one another in the small space of the studio. Additionally, I'm very
engaged by photo projects that involve the public in some way, that allow people to step
out of themselves and be creative, even if it's just for a scant few minutes. The aura of old
technology and the "look" that an old lens in tandem with the instant film and traditional
lighting creates helps to draw in participants.
I enjoy composing, even though it's upside down, on the big ground glass. The snapshot
size instant prints and negatives that will eventually become the final works allow both
me and the model to see and conceptualize what we are doing in a way that a tiny, non-
physical image on an lcd screen cannot. Additionally, each Polaroid is equivalent to a
50mb black and white.tiff file. Unless you have over $10K to spend, you're not going to
find a camera that will let you click off photos at that size and resolution.

Adrian Ioniţă I have seen on the Internet a description of a project with a "camera
obscura". Can you tell me something about that idea and your involvement?

RA Friedman: Sometimes it's important to take a side road or two, even if you are not
sure exactly where you will end up. In June 2007 a friend and fellow artist, Susan
Englert, who lives in Pittsburgh, approached me about a project she and an artist from
New York City, Clarinda Mac Low were doing in an abandoned church in Braddock, PA,
a largely depopulated mill town just above Pittsburgh.
The concept was to explore re-use and recycling of materials and to reconsider our
perceptions of what is junk/garbage and what is not. Susan wanted to do something with
the bell tower with an eye toward connecting the landscape and the interior space, a
metaphor for of rebirth and renewal. I had originally wanted to turn the whole tower into
a giant camera obscura and the idea danced in my head, but after a bit of consideration,
we decided on mounting a big, but more modest unit in one of the high windows.
The camera, we dubbed "Bessie" because the lens came from an old opaque projector
made by Charles Beseler Company. She was assembled in Philadelphia with the help of
another artist friend, sculptor Christopher Smith. While the rest of the camera was not
recycled, it was pretty low tech--a plywood body and a lens mount made from a modified
PVC sewer pipe, framing out of old canvas stretcher bars, light covering made from
contractor garbage bags. I shipped the unit to Pittsburgh and Susan and I spent the
weekend getting the giant, fixed-focus (at infinity) view camera (the rear ground glass
was 18" square) up into window that was about twenty-eight feet above the street and
around sixteen feet about the first landing of the tower.
The main engineering challenge was getting the camera properly in place inside the
narrow structure without ladders, rigging, or scaffolding. After extending my stay an
extra day, we raised the camera in place with the help of some of Susan's friends using a
support leg that folded up so it could be brought up through the tight space. I put a big
castor on the front of the camera so it could "climb" up the wall.
We then rigged up mirrors so that an observer on ground level, using a pair of binoculars
could actually see what "Bessie" was seeing! The camera stayed in place almost ten
months and was still functional when it was finally taken down.
Do I think about other projects like this? Definitely! I believe it is just something like
many things I've done---an idea that I will get back to and expand upon when the time
feels right.
[Bessie © 2007 drawing by Susan Englert]

Adrian Ioniţă Please tell me about your connection to Eastern Europe?

RA Friedman: One can never escape one's roots. I guess it is in one's blood. My
ancestors all came from Moldova, Ukraine, Hungary, and Poland. I work in a music
archive that is full of Jewish folk music and related materials. I don't too badly in Yiddish
(which I largely taught myself a few years back) so I've really gotten an education
concerning what the "old country" was like even if I've never had the chance to travel
there. I listen to a lot of Klezmer and, more recently, Balkan music. I don't do a huge
amount of perusing photography online, but the site I find I'm most drawn to have a lot
of photography that is coming out of Eastern Europe.

Adrian Ioniţă What are your immediate plans?


RA Friedman: I just finished having a solo exhibition in Philadelphia in conjunction
with a large public shoot where the venue let me set up a small, carnival-like
photographer's tent inside the gallery. The exhibited pieces were a photographic
sideshow of sorts featuring such oddities as a lion-boy, a hermaphrodite, and a snake
charmer. One of my close colleagues did much of the truly fantastic costuming and
styling, Susan Banchek, who works under the banner of EstherK.net. The public
component was very interesting since I pretty much set people lose and let them come up
with their own styling and poses. Some of the images are very creative but it's still too
early for me to tell how I'm going to work with this treasure trove. I feel sure though that
I want to do more of this kind of endeavor and definitely want both the show and the
portable studio to travel internationally.

Adrian Ioniţă: RA Friedman, I wish you good luck with your projects. Thank you for
granting this interview to our readers.

related links:
RA Friedman
Susan Banchek
Salvage/ Salvation Project/ Clarinda Mac Low
AxD GAllery
Rose Sylvester/ The Farmer's Daughter
Conspiracy Showroom
Chris Smith