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A Conversation With Constantine Manos
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David Alan Harvey: So tell me how photography became a passion for you. At what age, and how did lightning strike you?
Constantine Manos: I grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, where I joined the school camera club at the age of thirteen. Photography became an instant passion for me, with an emphasis on the darkroom. I had a great teacher, who was a strict disciplinarian who taught me the fine art of how to develop film and make good prints. I fell in love with the darkroom, and this imparted a good sense of craftsmanship to all of my photography.
DAH: Do you make your own prints now?
CM: Yes, I make my own prints now. I worked in the darkroom most of my life and for the last four or five years I have been making what I consider to be beautiful digital prints, perhaps equivalent to darkroom prints – especially in black and white. Yes, I love making prints.
DAH: A lot of people get interested in photography at an early age, but what happened to make you think you could turn this into a profession, into a business, into a craft where you could earn a living? What made that happen?
CM: Well, almost immediately I realized I wanted to make a career out of it, and by the time I was fifteen I was doing picture stories that were being published in the Sunday magazine of the local newspaper, which was the largest newspaper in the state. At the age of seventeen I discovered Henri Cartier-Bresson in a magazine article, and I found my mentor and the kind of pictures I wanted to take. I found out what camera he used, what film he used. I bought them and went to a little Island off the coast of South Carolina, and I made my first serious set of pictures – of which I am still proud. That was it. Cartier-Bresson was my long distance mentor for years. As soon as I got together a box of prints from the Island project I got on a Greyhound bus, went to New York, went to Magnum Photos and showed my pictures to whomever I met. I received a friendly but noncommittal reception. Cornell Capa was there, he looked at my pictures and said “lets go have a drink”. We went to a bar (I had never been to a bar in my life) and he sat me on the stool and said “what will you have”? I said “I’ll have whatever you have” and he said “Scotch”. I’ve been a Scotch drinker ever since.
DAH: Well what was the island you photographed?
CM: It’s called Daufuskie Island; it was a little island that was inhabited by descendants of plantation slaves. It was very isolated. They were beautiful people, but that island is now a resort with golf courses and expensive houses. All of the original aspects of the island are gone, but I still have the pictures, and the negatives I processed are still beautiful after sixty years.
DAH: Yeah, that’s right. I forgot it was Daufuskie. I was on Daufuskie about twenty years ago and it was still pretty much like you photographed it. I photographed a one-room school house and that sort of thing, but yeah, I have heard that it is all resort now, so I can’t quite bear to go back there.
CM: And you know where the name comes from? All the little islands along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia are called keys, and Daufuskie was the first key in this string. In the Gullah dialect of the locals it was “Dau-fus-kie, the first key, and that is where the name comes from.
DAH: Well that is great. I think I used to know that fact, but thank you for the reminder. Now, you are a well known and very popular workshop teacher. At what point did mentoring other photographers become important to you and why did you do it?
CM: Well I have been doing workshops for about 30 years now and I did them because I reached a point where I felt I had things to say about photography in general, especially about the Magnum style, the Magnum spirit of photography in particular. In the process of teaching I learned a lot about my own photography because I had to articulate ideas that were useful for going out into the real world and approaching subjects very closely and being able to make pictures that went beyond just what things looked like, but were something special and perhaps unique.
DAH: Well the real world has changed obviously, as the real world does over time. Today, a young photographer has to look at the process of making it into the business much differently than when you or I did. Do you think what you have to say is still relevant to a young photographer today?
CM: I think what I have to say and what a lot of older photographers have to say is still relevant, especially the Magnum photographers who have embraced the Magnum spirit and the Magnum approach. I think it will be forever valid because the world is only changing superficially. We still have people, human beings, and it is really about the human condition which is the main subject of Magnum photographers. You can go back to the beginning and look at the work of Cartier-Bresson, who was a young poet, who began doing photojournalism, mostly at the urging of Robert Capa – a brave hardcore photo-journalist. George Rodger was the intrepid traveler going to exotic places like Africa, and David Seymour was kind of a mix of them all. Between these early founders you have in a way the beginning of the Magnum approach to photography – which is still very valid and will go on forever, as long as there is a world. The Magnum archive is not the biggest in the world, but I feel it is most interesting and creative.
DAH: You can never take away from that basic story telling and humanistic vision of the world and the way that the Magnum photographers do it. Certainly not the only way, but it does seem the way that has stood the test of time.
CM: When a young photographer asks me, “how do I get an assignment?” I reply that before you even seek assignment you have to produce a body of work that shows how you view the world and what you can do with your camera. In other words you have to have something very unique, a vision, a proof that you are capable of putting your own personal stamp on your pictures and can show us things we have never seen before and will never see again. I think every successful photograph is a surprise, often defined by a special moment. Think about the poet who writes poems for their own sake and then seeks a publisher. Photography has become so simple, particularly since the arrival of the digital camera. I often start my workshops by saying any fool can take a picture, why don’t you try playing the violin? It is still very difficult, even though much easier technically with digital cameras. Everyone is taking pictures. Everyone is out there with a cell phone or whatever. When we were coming up, you had to at least know how to use a hand held exposure meter, set the f/stop, set the shutter speeds, focus… you had to have some skill and sense of craft, and then in high school there was usually one guy who had the professional camera and everyone else was just taking pictures with box cameras and a roll of film. Today there is a glut and because of the glut there is in a way a lowering of standards because so many people consider themselves photographers who have never gone through the ordeal of learning the craft, but have just picked up a camera and started pushing the button. We are swamped in a sea of banality, even coming from some people who are professionals and make their living from photography
DAH: I think that is right. I look at it as a combination of a plus and a minus. In other words it is a plus that everybody is picking up the language of photography, that’s fantastic, but I think the reason workshops are so popular these days is because at some point people realize “well wait one minute, I can kind of speak the language, but I can’t really speak the language”, and so they start looking for the history of photography, they start looking at more sophisticated ways of doing it. So it is kind of a plus and a minus. I think it is probably more plus in the long run though.
CM: Yes, it is more plus.
DAH: Yeah, everybody is a photographer, and like we were talking about in the workshop in Texas, English is a language that everybody speaks but only a few people speak it really really well and I think that is maybe a good parallel. So that is a good segue into what we are doing now with Magnum in Provincetown. Can you explain that one a little bit? I think you have created a potential experience for people to pick up on some of the things you have just talked about. Can you explain the workshops in Provincetown and what it has to offer?
CM: Well, Magnum Days is going to be a photographic gathering in the small town of Provincetown, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. It is going to run from September 15th through the 21st. Bruno Barbey, Larry Towell, Olivia Arthur, and yea you will be doing workshops. Provincetown is a very artistic town, with sixty art galleries. Artists and art are revered here. Magnum is partnering with the Fine Arts Work Center, a wonderful institution which is supplying us with ten studios and twenty student apartments which we will be using for this workshop. Provincetown is a wonderful place to take pictures. You can walk right out of the Arts Center onto the main street which is always bustling with all kinds of people. It is a seaside town so there is the whole nautical thing, and then there are the beaches, but mainly there is a lot of humanity here and great opportunities for photography. So it offers a great locale for our kind of photography if you are out there looking for a wonderful poetic moment of something happening between people, among people, in an interesting environment. I make my students all work with a wide-angle lens so that they have to get close and fill the frame and have a lot of information in the picture, and I try to teach them how to do that physically with their body, how to go out, find a picture, think about it and think about exactly what they want from this situation and go for it, and be able to get close without ever being seen.
DAH: Well nobody articulates better than you that process, and describing the elements of a picture. I kind of feel like taking one of your workshops myself, but because I have taught with you a couple of times I have caught some of your critique and you are amazing at being able to describe the process of seeing.
CM: It will be five days of workshops. Bruno Barbey, Larry Towell, Olivia Arthur, Eli Reed, and yea you…and me!!, will be doing workshops. Every night there will be a slideshow by one of the workshop instructors in the evening, and then on the weekend (Saturday and Sunday) we will have a gala for visiting photographers, Bruce Davidson, Steve McCurry, Susan Meiselas and Peter Van Agtmael who is one of our fine younger members. They and the workshop instructors will be doing portfolio reviews for all who wish to partake of them, not only the registered workshop students. There will be an interesting symposium called “The State of Photography Today?” because we all know photography is going through a revolution right now. In the middle of all of this there is the Magnum tradition, which has gone on for almost 70 years. There will be continuous loop projections in one of the large studios titled The Magnum Legacy, a history in pictures of iconic images from each of the photographers from the beginning to today. There will also be a projection titled Magnum Film Clips showing clips of movies made by Magnum photographers.
DAH: Well we have a continuum. I think if we have gone on for 70 years through good times or bad times there has got to be something to it.
CM: That is right, absolutely. And so we are always looking for young photographers who believe in this Magnum tradition and would like to be a part of it. It doesn’t mean we are all taking pictures like Cartier-Bresson. We have some remarkable young people who are doing ground breaking work, like Jacob Aue Sobol…a young photographer who is doing very interesting black and white work which is totally new and fresh, but is still about people and the human condition.
DAH: Well, you can use HCB as an influence but it wouldn’t do any good just to copy. You are influenced by somebody and then you do your own thing.
CM: You are influenced by a lot of photographers! You are a combination of everything you have seen and liked and thought about and you should hopefully become a unique photographer, a unique individual. The greatest compliment a photographer can have is for people to recognize their style without knowing who took the picture, and it takes a lot of hard work and a lot of thinking and a lot of focusing to accomplish this.
DAH: Well, thank you. That is great.
CM: Thank you, David.
Constantine Manos was born in South Carolina of Greek immigrant parents. He attended the University of South Carolina, where he received a B. A. in English Literature. He is a member of Magnum Photos.
Manos’ photographs are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Bibliotheque National, Paris; George Eastman House in Rochester; the Museum of Fine Ars, Houston; and the Benaki Museum, Athens.
Manos is the author of five books: Portrait of A Symphony, A Greek Portfolio, Bostonians, American Color, and American Color 2. In 2003 he was awarded the Leica Medal of Excellence. Manos’ work may be seen at magnumphotos.com.
Magnum Days at the Fine Arts Work Center, September 15-21, 2014