Pisani – What brought you into the world of photography?
Eastman – The thing that led me to photography was the medium’s immediacy. With a camera, one was a photographer from their first photograph. Anyone could take a picture. But it took a very long time to become an accomplished photographer – a lifetime
Pisani – What are your interactions like when you travel to different places to capture your shots? Do the people living in these interiors generally respond positively to having their homes photographed?
Eastman – I think most people are wary of my interest in photographing their interior. They wonder what it is I see. It is helpful for me to have some images with me to illustrate my intent and that I am serious and interested in celebrating who they are and where they live.
Pisani – Considering some of your locations are culturally significant, i.e., historical palaces and theaters in Buenos Aires, landmark homes in Havana, how do you gain access to shoot these interiors?
Eastman – Access is the most difficult part of what I do, especially after 9/11. It is so difficult to be able to communicate what I am looking for, but when I am in a location, I know when it is right. Location scouts, architects, historians and those that love their country are of great help. Knocking on lots of doors will usually result in some interiors I could not have found any other way.
Pisani – Many people may not know this, but you have used rather heavy, large cameras throughout your career in your pursuit of large-format photographs. What are some of the benefits or curiosities from using a large-format camera and heavy tripod rather than a handheld camera?
Eastman – The large format, the dark cloth over my head and the very heavy tripod are cumbersome. All of which tend to slow me down. And working deliberately has made me better. I am almost always in a hurry. I want to get to the next location, to the next photograph. But it is the slowness of my method of working that keeps me in the moment. Through moving the camera position fractions of inches, I can change the relationships of all the shapes in the frame. It takes time to consider it all. To be in the moment is essential.
Ansel Adams once said that he could move whole mountain ranges miles by simply moving the camera a few inches. Relationships in space are very fluid. Choosing the right place for me is what my photographs are really about.
Pisani – You told a story before that when you started with photography in the 1970’s you were reading and trying to learn from an Ansel Adams book, so you decided to call him. Can you talk more about this?
Eastman – It was 1973, and I was working exclusively in black and white. I was following the process that Ansel Adams had created in his Zone System of exposure and development of the negative to manipulate the contrast range of the negative and subsequently the final print.
I was having trouble with one of the chapters in the book. My agitation was not even. What to do? It was 1973, so I called information (411) in California for the phone number of Ansel Adams. I called, and Mr. Adams answered with a cheerful hello. He was most helpful. Can you imagine doing that now? It was a wonderful time to be a photographer. I liked it better then, before it became an art form. It just was what it was and nothing more. No pretension.
Pisani – Photography in the 1970s was not the same as it is now. Asides from the overwhelming number of images in circulation, what do you think has changed for photographers working today?
Eastman – It is more important now than ever to create work that is one’s own. A personal vision is difficult to find in the best of times, but in these days, with millions of images circulating everywhere, it is more challenging to create in fresh territory. I have always found that it is the conversation with one’s self that is the most instructive. What do I feel about what I am photographing? It is the most important question I can ask. Many times, the answer is nothing.
But on rare occasions, I found myself in front of something that moves me deeply with no reason other than the place asks more questions than gives answers. That is where I find my most personal work and my best work.
Pisani – Your work creates an interesting visual relationship with an interior space. The profiles of these interiors present much more than a room; they seem to symbolize their character. Do you treat these interior shots as you would a person’s portrait?
Eastman – My interiors, for me, are portraits of the inhabitants of the space even though they are not actually present. The architecture, the art on the wall, the condition of the space, the style of furniture, the memorabilia, the objects on the tables, etc. All of these help the viewer create an image of who the person who lives in the room might be. It is this process that creates such a vivid narrative and a telling portrait.
Pisani – In your series’ Abstractions and Urban Luminosities, you explore color, composition, and form similar to a painter. When did you become interested in abstraction and how do you think abstraction translates into photography?
Eastman – The first photograph that I ever made was an abstraction. It was a detail on an old, discarded painting I found in a very urban area near my home in Saint Louis. I guess I have always been interested in the abstract. I love the work of many painters. I suppose, had I been more patient, I would have been a painter. The idea of waiting for paint to dry to make then next brush stroke would have made me crazy. The photography instant was so appealing to me. I always loved making painterly photographs. I loved the color, the patina, the marks, and the formal composition. I also loved that much of abstraction in the urban environment was accidental, random, and beautiful. It felt like what I was looking for was the recognition of an artistic result formed in a random universe. The photographs were about recognition, acknowledgment, and celebration.
Pisani – Your interior photographs appear to withhold untold stories, to contain within them a history only they know. This aesthetic perhaps gives a visual form to the phrase, “if these walls could talk.” Is that something fair to say?
Eastman – Yes, I think the walls do talk, and the color of the walls, the patina on the walls, the objects hanging on the walls, the condition of the walls and scores of other elements of an interior tell us so much of the story of a place and the people who live there.
Pisani – What information do you wish to capture when you shoot an interior?
Eastman – I do not think I am looking for information or a conclusion when I photograph an interior. I am driven by questions that can never really be answered. Questions that keep calling me back to try to figure out why I care to know a place. It is compelling me to understand people by looking at where they live.
Pisani – Your photographs point to a timelessness; their massive size, detailed precision, and lack of people help the viewer access the work and travel into its context. To quote Mary Warner Marien on travel photography:
“The absence of people in most of these views (landscape photos) … annulled time and made the scene appear primordial, as if the (viewer) were the first person to see it.”
Do you feel your images create an open stage for a narrative?
Eastman – Absolutely… The size of the camera and negative or file, create such detail that the photographs feel like one could enter them, literally. That is by design. I have always dragged the large format camera, heavy tripod, and cumbersome film holders around with me in the hope that I would be able to make very large prints. I think the scale of these photographs makes it easier to enter the interior and helps the viewer form their own narrative. But I am always surprised to learn from viewers how similar the portraits are that we create. It is a collective consciousness, I guess.
Pisani – Time seems to be a constant theme in your work. You not only capture the decay and imperfections created by time, but also work within a certain amount of chance. For example, in Cuba, some of the buildings you captured would have been renovated or destroyed soon after you had shot your photographs. Does the possibility that you may not get the right image impact the way you set out to shoot?
Eastman – Photographers are always historians regardless of their intent. Whatever we capture in our camera will create a historical record of that moment in time. Eventually, it is what a photograph tells of the future that is as important as whatever the photographer intended to say with their art. Almost everything I have ever photographed has changed. Change is constant. Sometimes when I am in a city exploring, I wonder what a future generation might be interested in seeing that is in front of me at that moment.
Once, I made a photograph of an art deco movie theater in Wisconsin. There was a very ordinary white cargo van in front. I exhibited it once, and someone said that they would have loved the photograph even more if the van had not been in the picture. I remember standing in front of my camera when I made that photograph and hoping that its owner would move it. But later as I thought, in a hundred years it might be that the van will be the most interesting thing in the frame to a future generation of people who might never have seen a car much less a van.
Pisani – What have been some of your favorite locations or interactions while on a shoot?
Eastman – Havana. There are very few places where time stood still. Havana was and still is very similar to what it had been in the 1950s. Quite an opportunity to time travel.
Pisani – Any memorable, unexpected mishaps that have come up during a shoot of an interior?
Eastman – There have been times where I have had a tripod fail, an exposure meter battery run out, a lens shutter not work or a shutter release loss. When one travels so far, the fear that something will fail is always there. It keeps you in the scared and therefore more deliberate. I once made an entire photo shoot in Monument Valley, and my film holder malfunctioned, and not one negative was exposed. I still think about those photographs.
Pisani – Your work seems to have a constant feeling of a human presence, even though there are no people present in your actual picture. How do you achieve this lingering presence?
Eastman – I think the presence comes from a sense that someone is about to enter the space or has just left the space. I think the interiors I choose to photograph and exactly where I place the camera create a space that almost feels like a theater set. Very formal and very frontal. So maybe it is this approach that creates that human presence and drama. I search for places that have that sense of being inhabited. It is what I look for.
Pisani – In many of your interiors, there is a pin-drop silence and stillness that echoes the tension and ambiguity created in cinematic drama, does film influence your career?
Eastman – I do love motion pictures. I am sure it has influenced me. But unlike film, I try to keep things the way I found them. I find that the reality of a place gives the photographs a sense of truth that I think is important. Films usually get to make their own truths. I respect that.
Pisani – There is a constant usage of stairs and doorways in your work, do they play a symbolic aspect?
Eastman – I am not sure if it’s symbolic. I believe that a stairway is where an architect gets to be a sculptor, an artist. It is a stairway where they can create a third-dimensional work of art. I love stairways because they can be so beautiful, sensuous, mysterious, and organic.
Pisani – How important would you consider the technical aspect of your work to be, like deciding composition, lighting, etc.?
Eastman – The composition is the underpinning of all that I do. It is how I see the world. With every photograph I ever make, where I place the camera is very considered and of the utmost importance; it is the photograph. Lighting is always available. There is a logic to light. When it is natural, all of the shadows and highlights make sense. There is a volume that the light creates. It feels real because it is.
Pisani – Would you say that there is an emotional quality to your images, a romanticism of place perhaps?
Eastman – I think that my images when successful are very emotional. Photography in part is how I experience the world and what I feel about what is in front of me. If I do not feel anything
about a photograph, it is not a success for me on any level. Photography for me is about capturing a truth. I do not try to embellish, distort, exaggerate or misinform the viewer. I want to make extraordinary photographs from realities that are ordinary. When successful, it is what I feel about what I am capturing that makes the picture significant.
Michael Eastman has established himself as one of the world’s leading contemporary photographic artists. The self-taught photographer has spent five decades documenting interiors and facades in cities as diverse as Havana, Paris, Rome, and New Orleans, producing large-scale photographs unified by their visual precision, monumentality, and painterly use of color. Eastman is most recognized for his explorations of architectural form and the textures of decay, which create mysterious narratives about time and place.
As profiles of various structures, the pictures also showcase the ravages of time amidst their grandeur, presenting profiles loyal to all of the organic imperfections caused by the passage of time and use. Michael Eastman’s photography emphasizes, through painterly technique, a sense of quiet admiration, and unapologetic sincerity, the human stages for political, social, and cultural interaction and the untold stories still echoing within their walls.
As a self-taught photographer, Michael Eastman has been producing large-scale photographs using a 4 x 5-inch format camera, a wide-angle lens, and through long exposures with available light. His pictures have gained renown for their precision, monumentality, and painterly use of color.
Eastman’s photographs have appeared in Time, Life, Art in America, Art News, Art Forum, Communication Arts and American Photographer, and they reside in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the International Center of Photography, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and other prestigious institutions. His books include Havana (2011, Prestel), Vanishing America (2008, Rizzoli) and Horses (2003, Knopf).