You won’t want to miss this one hour zoom presentation with Michael Eastman.
In conjunction with our exhibition, Rooms that Resonate with Possibilities, Holden and Michael discuss his ongoing fascination with the human dimension of architectural spaces, his work during the last year of Covid and his commitment to the photographic image.
Luntz: I have the pleasure of being here with the distinguished photographer, Michael Eastman, this morning. Michael is one of the photographers in the exhibition that we just opened called, Rooms that Resonate with Possibilities. And among other bodies of work that Michael has shot, are these extraordinary rooms in places in America, and in Europe, and in Cuba.
Michael has had a distinguished 50 year career. He’s got work in the Metropolitan Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Chicago Art Institute, the LA County Museum, European collections, and important corporate collections. So, his pictures speak largely, especially if you get the chance to see them up close, because oftentimes the images can be six by eight feet. What I want to do, Michael, is go through a thumbnail history and talk about your various bodies of work. And what’s nice is during the last year in COVID, an awful lot of people have had to do very little, because they said COVID has prevented them from working. Well, Michael is a workaholic and the last year has been immensely productive so I want to share what you’ve been up to since COVID.
Eastman: Basically when I first began, I was trying to teach myself how to see, and how to photograph and how to compose, more importantly. So these early frames are just abstract, architectural and a junkyard I used to go to. And I would photograph these things and spend hours, arranging just an inch here, a quarter inch there, up, down, to get basically a formal composition of almost a painting. And I did this all the way through the late 70s and early 80s.
Luntz: Can you share a quick story with us, Michael, which I find very amusing, and it’s the way the Art World was maybe 40 or 50 years ago. You’re basically self-taught, but you were taught by looking at the work of great photographers that were influential to you and had something to teach you. So, what happened when you got stuck trying to figure out black and white value system?
Eastman: I was working in black and white and I tried this zone system. I got Ansel Adams’ book and I did sense densitometer readings. I did all this processing, and I was having real difficulty with it. So I figured, “Who am I going to talk to?” So I called Carmel, California and I asked for the number of an A. Adams. A guy picked up the phone, it was Ansel Adams and I said, “Mr. Adams I’m having a problem with the agitation.” And he was so helpful and so warm and so wonderful. He gave me some suggestions, which actually didn’t work, but I finally figured it out. That was 1973 and you can’t imagine me calling somebody up of that stature and asking that question, and not getting hung up on.
Luntz: No, it’s pretty amazing.
Introduction to Color
Eastman: I switched to four by five when I shot this photograph, which gave me the advantage of multiple holders so I could shoot black and white and color when I was out there instead of one of the other. And when I made this black and white, I liked it a lot. And when I looked at it in color, from that point on I never could look at a black and white photograph again without thinking, “Gee I wonder what the colors look like.”
Luntz: So, when you saw the information that was available and the emotive power that you said the color pictures had and black and white pictures didn’t. You were hooked. Generally, Masters of Photography back in the 70s, with rare exception, were really black and white photographers. So it made you unusual that you really embraced color photography very early on and were one of the pioneers in contemporary color photography.
Eastman: Oh, thanks. This one fit in this sort of abstract thing, but didn’t. But I made it and it was probably the first big winner. These people kept asking me where this was photographed. And it was the beginning of Vanishing America, and the beginning of looking for a narrative story. But everybody who looked at this photograph would say, “Is this in Connecticut? Is this in Michigan? Is this in Colorado? Is this is in California?” So I realized there was a collective consciousness in the world, and I read about it a lot. And in terms of in art, there was these people all sort of own this and felt like it was their own experience. And as my work got less and less abstract and more and more narrative, this was a lesson that was really important.
So it’s this kind of image and then the next one was another one, an interior that was really near my home, and again it tells a story of a different time when I grew up.
Eastman: A 10 cent Coke on the right side and just a gumball machine. One of my favorites. Both those two images didn’t fit. And sometimes when you’re working on bodies of work, there are things that don’t fit that you can’t give up. And those are the ones that usually lead you to the, for me anyway, lead me to the next. And then I went to Europe for the first time because I was sort of running out of things in St. Louis and around my area and I had an opportunity to shoot abstraction, not unlike what I was doing in those early black and white, but now in color.
Luntz: This is an important picture for you even though it’s black and white. Can you talk a little about it and then we’ll proceed on.
Eastman: It’s funny because it’s, it’s actually called “Black and White in Color.” It’s a color print. The wall is black and the paint was white, there was no color in it. But the about this was, it was 1986, I think, and it was the end of my abstraction for a while, for 25 years, because I didn’t think I was ever going to find an abstraction that was this good and this complicated. Everybody thought I cut it out and I did some kind of collage, but this is a straight 8 x 10 negative of an old gas station that somebody painted to make it look pretty cool, I thought, and in the middle of downtown St. Louis. So it stopped abstraction and I started moving to other things.
Luntz: You were telling me that in the beginning, you were sort of agoraphobic. That you grew up in St. Louis, you embrace St. Louis, you return to it in the last year and did some astounding work in St Louis, again. But what was it like when Europe opened up to you and how did you get access to the places that you shot, which are amazing?
Eastman: Well it was early and I didn’t know much, and I didn’t know many people that did what I was doing, and I didn’t have a location scout, and I didn’t have an internet to really search out interiors so it was me putting a backpack on my back with 50 pounds of tripod and film holders and camera stuff and just walking around these cities.
This was Budapest. These are courtyards where the doors, fortunately, were open and I kept opening these doors, and every once in a while I got a Christmas present.
Luntz: And something that I should let the viewers know, is that there is an aesthetic that’s very popular now because everybody does it. It’s called snap and shoot. You point the camera, it’s an easy camera to use because it’s a very small format and digital. But you embraced complicated equipment, large negatives, slow, long exposures, and, rather than cropping, looking at a picture and cropping up the part that worked, from early on, you concentrated on your craft, you use the best equipment you use large format negatives, and you were very, very careful about how you compose the picture.
Eastman: Well, I always wanted to go big. I think some part of me wanted to be a painter, but I was so ADD the idea of waiting for paint to dry was, I couldn’t imagine that. So that was the beauty of photography, so quick and democratic and you could take a picture of the first day even if it was maybe terrible. I always thought of these things as paintings, and I always thought of them to be large which nobody was doing it in the early 80s, and I started printing these things big and they had a certain presence.
And I also just love the detail of, I was using an 8 x 10 camera at the time, which was, you know, just a revelation. First of all you’re looking through an 8 x 10 glass window on the back of your camera. And so you’re seeing a photograph there, basically, it’s not like a little viewfinder you’re looking through. So, I was thinking big and I was thinking as sharp as I could make it, and so when it went big, it would look really good but would hold up.
Luntz: In the beginning you shot a lot of commercial work because that’s how you made a living. So we’re gonna go on to the first body of work that you said really begins the fine art body of work that has a big audience. Your Horses book had a distribution of 50,000. It’s not in print now, but you can easily find it – Michael Eastman Horses. So tell me how the horses body of work came into being.
Eastman: Well, my wife, Gayle, and I were in Taos, New Mexico on a commission with a person who wanted me to photograph the landscape around his house. And we went out there for two weeks and stayed in his house and I had a blue sky everyday. That’s the one thing I didn’t know much about with landscapes, but I soon discovered that a blue sky is pretty deadly when shooting color landscapes or when shooting black and white landscapes for that matter. So for two weeks we hunted around, didn’t find anything.
At one point, at dusk on the last day we were there, the sun was going down, a few clouds appeared, and we were driving along the Pueblo house and this horse is being hit by light from low angle and it was just stunning. I said, “God that’s beautiful.” And Gayle said, “Get out and shoot it.” So I got out and I started shooting and as soon as I got out the horse was like a supermodel, turning to the left, turn to the right, the light was flowing through it and I just kept shooting. When I got back to St. Louis and looked at my film, the only thing that I really wanted to print was the horses, and that began a really intense three or four years just photographing horses.
Eastman: They’re shot in color and converted in Photoshop to black and white and colored in Photoshop as well. These were done in the computer and printed on watercolor paper. And they were Iris prints, they were quite beautiful. And I started to sell for the first time. So, here I am 20 years into it, and I’m starting to make a little money on fine art, and still making a living shooting commercial studio things.
Luntz: So I would like to go now to a body of work that you’re very well known for, which was another book that came out, which was the work in Cuba, and there were four trips to Cuba from 1999, 2000, 2010 and 2014. We’ll go to the first Cuba picture and the first ones are very abstract, but what was the motivation behind going to Cuba?
Eastman: Well, my wife had been looking at magazines, especially French fashion magazines, and was showing me these photoshoots that were done in interiors in Cuba and they were so stunning. Places that felt like I was looking at something that had been frozen completely in time and hadn’t changed in 50 years and most of them hadn’t. And so I just thought, “I better get there before it all the good ones get taken.” And Gayle and I went there and it was quite an experience.
I didn’t know how to approach it really so I started by shooting what was comfortable, which were color abstractions of Cuba facades and that first year was just, again, searching, driving, walking and looking and trying to sort of get a sense of the place which took about two or three weeks and it took a bit of time to do that. When I look back at that shoot it wasn’t that successful, except for this next picture.
Isabella’s Two Chairs
Eastman: When I was driving along Fifth Avenue, where the embassies were, there was a beautiful, beautiful building with a green vitrolife roof, with a huge black hole and you could just see what’s going into it. So I went up to it, knocked on the door and, Isabella, that’s who owned it, came to the door and answered it. I said, “I love your house. Is there any way I could photograph the interior?” She said yeah and I went back the next day and made this photo. She was very ill. The house was really falling apart. There was water coming in from the third floor all the way down to the second and down to the first, and I made this photograph. She was just a dear, and I just love the photograph and got back and it was a photograph that was like that first horse. It was one that everybody sort of wanted and it told a story really strongly. It was probably the most narrative piece I had done, maybe besides the Marcellas. And it was a significant change in my life it was, it was a seminal moment.
Eastman: A year later, I went back to see Isabella and Isabella was gone. She had died three months after I had been there. She had a heart condition and her niece took over. There was an energy in the room that wasn’t there before. She had put her laundry up, the dust on the ground was swept up, there was construction on the far right. And also she had put up more crystals on the chandelier. When you look at the 6 x 8 print, and the reason I shot that big, you can go up to that picture and look at those crystals and you can see little red and blue ties from the grocery store that she used to put those things on. So this energy that she brought to this house was kind of was, you know, I was so sad and Isabella wasn’t there to greet us but, but I just love what her niece had done and the energy in the space.
Luntz: There is a term using language and in communication called “metonymy.” And metonymy means you can suggest something being there through something else being there. When I look at your spaces, they’re very human spaces. The chairs look like somebody is just going to enter in, or somebody just got out of the chairs. And I think the human presence is in all of your pictures that are about human spaces. They’re very human and what the viewer looks at in associates to them is they’re not architectural studies, they’re very human studies. I think by the people not being there, the possibilities are much greater when you look at them to imagine the life that was lived there. The pictures have this amazing human element to them, where if two people were sitting in those chairs, it would be quite specific and it would be about the house with the two people that are living there or visiting there. It’s a very different picture to look at when you suggest the people without them actually being there. It’s very powerful and you do it a lot with chairs, with beds, with tables, and to me it opens up the pictures to much greater potential for possibilities.
Eastman: Yeah, I didn’t know that term. Certainly, from going forward from this point, especially with the interiors, but now almost everything I’m looking for that. In the beginning, it was all about composition, narrative snuck in. Now it’s all about narrative and composition is underneath the picture, but it’s not the picture.
Luntz: Absolutely, and I’d like to share that one of your hard, fast rules that you’ve developed is you never stage a sight. You never move things around to make a better picture.
Eastman: No, because I get in the way of the narrative. There’s a reality about consistency and everything. Once in Seville, Gayle and I were walking and found this interior, Renaissance interior. Stunning, beautiful and on the, you know, 500 year old table leaning against it was a pair of golf clubs and I moved it. And to this day I regret moving it. It was perfect and I was just not ready to see it and not ready to see the importance.
Another thing is, I get people that come to the shows and when I talk to people they say, “Who’s your set designer? Who creates this mood?” And I say, “It’s life. It’s recognizing that everything in a room has a symbol and a meaning and a history.” By getting out of the way and presenting it, you let the viewer see what you saw and feel what you felt. It’s a collective consciousness. When somebody comes up to me says, “I love this photograph because of that orange.” And I say, “Well that’s why I photographed it. That orange against that green.” That’s the other thing about these, they are very much about color. I feel like I become more and more of a colorist, the longer I do this.
Luntz: I wanted to bring that up and to say that if there are definitions, if there are characteristics that make for a great sort of “Michael Eastman” photograph, it’s that sense of the saturated color, it’s the lyricism of places, and it’s the idea that these are indescribable colors. It’s time, and use, and human interaction. That has all made the palette what it is, and the pictures are a sort of a testament to the beauty and the strength and history of survival. So I think it’s amazing that way.
Eastman: And it’s interesting because, on a technical note, these are long exposures. Sometimes in the darkest spaces, the exposures are three or four minutes, and sometimes longer. So what happens is this film is not really designed for long exposure so you can get some real crazy colors going. Everybody always asked me, “Are you juicing the colors?” And I go, “No. In fact, you have to do the opposite, because the film doesn’t respond well.” I have to desaturate the colors because the color, as I said a minute ago, is so important. So the difference between that blue and that green, with this film the shifts and with different light sources, it’s almost impossible to do exactly what you see. So, you’re balancing greens against blues and you’re adding a little yellow in the green maybe because the film didn’t pick it up. And so, you know, I try to remember when I’m printing to be honest but remember romantically.
Luntz: Yeah, they’re amazing and there is sort of a common thread and a link to all of the pictures – it looks like the same aesthetic is behind the compositions, and the interest of the pictures. Can you talk a little bit about this picture?
Eastman: Yeah, this was in that same room with the one before. There was a Jewish star there which I thought was interesting. It’s called crypto architecture. And there was a Jewish family that built it. The Jews were not allowed to practice in Cuba at this time so they snuck the Jewish star as a kind of design element. It wasn’t a temple, but it was a Jewish home. You know these pictures of Fidel in the background and then this young daughter, almost like a high school graduation picture, it’s these things that kinda became like little temples or altars. They always feel about what’s in them that they are telling you a real story about this family. And again I never move those chairs, but I moved my camera so those chairs lined up where I want them to. I move everything by moving my camera.
Eastman: Okay so music room and in Havana. You know, just stunning color again. The doorway leaning against the wall. A piano that’s broken down but still, they’re giving lessons, people are still learning music.
Luntz: I think one of the things, Michael, that distinguishes you from say Candida Höfer, who also shoots large format interiors, or Struth or Gursky, is they tend to shoot large places that are impersonal, whether they be theaters, whether they be museums, whether they be factories. The thing about Michael Eastman is Michael Eastman respects and takes on projects almost as a personal historian. You’re drawn to very personal spaces, spaces that have to have so many stories to share that we’ll never know.
Eastman: Yeah, I think that I wanted more intimate portraits. I don’t think I agree with you that those photographers that you mentioned have extraordinary work extraordinary work but I wanted to be much more intimate and..
Luntz: And the work shows. And if you get up close to a picture they’re fascinating because there’s a depth to them and there’s a kind of a mystery to them. And, you know in a sense, they look exotic, but in another sense they’re the pictures that other people would have overlooked. They’re the places on the verge of being forgotten, and photography itself is an act of remembrance and I think that’s why the pictures are so strong. They remember these spaces and they remember them in the most beautiful way possible.
Eastman: Yeah, I was talking to a young photographer a couple days ago and we were talking about that and I said to him, “You know, we photographers, regardless of what our intent in that photograph is, we’re historians, above all. Eventually, if we’re lucky enough, 10, 20, 50, 100 years from now somebody will want to look at that photograph, maybe not because it was a piece of art, but because of what it told us about our history.” So I think we’re historians. Photographers are a lot of things, but I think we’re also historians.
Luntz: I totally agree. Historians in the nicest way, in the most artful way.
Luntz: Let’s go on to Europe and you can talk about some of the pictures that were made in Europe. This picture, I want people to be aware that there is also sort of a signature device that’s in a number of your pictures and it has to do with doors and mirrors. They are very interesting, the way you shoot them, and the kind of impact they have in your pictures. Can you say something about it?
Eastman: First of all let me explain why I’m not in the picture. When I get in these situations I do one of two things. This is a long exposure, three minutes, so I could shoot it and walk out and come back in three minutes and you wouldn’t see me. In this case I was actually on the ground in front of my camera, out of the frame. I love these mirrors because these break up the reality in a way. You see more. You see another room, basically because of them. There’s a mystery about them, and the doorways, and the candles, and the color of the couch, and how it’s worn and the sheen. Those are all again hints about what went on in there. And also artistically, or aesthetically I should say, they break things up into some sort of bizarre kind of ways. I still discover things about this image because there’s so many intricacies in the way these things are refracted and broken up.
Luntz: And I think what’s nice is that they’re very realistic pictures. You know exactly what you’re looking at. But the mirrors and the doors often introduce wonderful abstract concepts and abstract images into a figurative image.
Eastman: Yeah, it’s best when everything’s in it. You know what I mean? It’s best when it’s narrative, it’s colors, it’s composition, it’s abstraction, it’s mystery, it’s history. When you start out as any artist, you learn to juggle one ball at a time and that’s what I did with the early architectural things. And then you try to get a second one and third one. And if you’re a good juggler you get five. And I see that as a metaphor for an artist. You start simple. You master it. You add. You keep trying to get better, more complicated.
Luntz: You know, it reminds me of something. I was watching an Avedon interview with Charlie Rose, and Charlie Rose asked Avedon, “What was the mark of a photographer that you admire?” And he admired Irving Penn, and he admired Cartier-Bresson. And he said
what he admired and what made a photographer great was the sheer appetite for work. The sheer appetite to keep going back to a project, to keep shooting, to know that you’ve done it right, and then to keep doing it. And this is a mark of Michael Eastman. You’re incredibly productive, and you never stop.
Luntz: So this is the first time we’ve had this picture. It’s hanging in our front window. It’s a little unusual in the sense that it is a space that looks pretty well restored. But it’s amazing. Can you tell us where it was shot?
Eastman: It’s in Paris. It’s the Italian Embassy. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful mansion. And, you know, this is when I finally got to figure out about location scouts. They could get me into places because, after 9/11, you can’t get in anywhere. But this was just a stunning place and it was not a very normal photograph for me. It’s a diagonal, it’s an angle, it’s a corner, it’s a sphere.
What I think is important in photography, too, is that the only way you learn is by doing. And the only way you learn from doing, is by the mistakes you make. The things that you do right, don’t teach you anything. Things that you do wrong give you some information that you can work on to continue to get better. And I think that’s why I keep shooting. All these series we’ve been looking through, I think there was a point where I kind of did what I could do, and I was ready to move on. And, like I said before, it was usually something in that group that didn’t fit. Those mirror ones, we come back to that a little bit later in Urban Luminosity. That’s the same thing.
Luntz: Again this is a sort of a grand space for you. And it shows us a whole kind of different photograph in a sort of looking at a space that’s grand. Is this the embassy as well?
Eastman: No, this is in Syracuse I think. Sicily. And it’s, you know, again, an old mansion. I’ve got a really good friend there now who is on the lookout for things that have never been photographed. So I was lucky to get in about a dozen things. Yeah. You know, these are me trying new things and learning. A lot of old lessons, but again, the kind of narrative in this grand room.
The Digital Darkroom
Luntz: And this is very sort of minimal and maximal at the same time. It’s got a very, very interesting balance and a palette that’s very, very rich. If I walked into this room I would be scratching my head. How do you take a picture of a room like this? You seem to have found, from so many years of doing it, just where you need to be and what kind of lens you need and how it can look graceful and beautiful and get the whole picture in.
Eastman: Well it’s interesting that you brought that up. First of all, I use one lens, I always have, it’s a wide angle lens. It’s an architectural camera with an architectural lens. So everything squared up. But this is a really, really dark room and the only light was this little window on the left that you could open, and it just squeezed a little bit of light in. It was about a four minute exposure. So it’s hard to see what you’re going to get. You have to have a little faith that it’s gonna happen.
But when I got back to the studio, this is a four by five sheet of film, I scanned it in using a high-res scanner, best investment of my life in business. And I got the digital file and started working in Photoshop. I’ve always been working in the darkroom from 1972 to yesterday. It’s something that is important to me in the process. I learned to become a really good printer over 50 years, but the digital darkroom of Photoshop. You know is so remarkable in terms of the control of lightening that right side enough so it kind of matches the left side and everything. It is normal and it is natural light, but you’ve got to work really hard to render that on a piece of photographic paper.
Luntz: No, it’s an amazingly rich and seductive picture.
Eastman: And the wide angle with that chandelier is like a second picture in this room and that’s part of the medium. The closer to the wide angle, that kind of gets bigger and sort of more dense.
Luntz: This is Venice and I think this is an example of what a digital darkroom can do that a normal darkroom can’t, correct?
Eastman: When Ansel was shooting in shooting black and white, he had about seven zones meaning from dark black with details to white with detail blown out. But that was his range. With a color negative and a digital file, you’ve got probably 10, maybe 11. Meaning that, in this picture, you can look at the shadow, especially in the top left, there’s detail in that shadow and then the highlights. That’s a sunny, pretty bright day through some white sheer curtains.
So I was able to control that rage by burning and dodging the way I did in the darkroom with my hands and the little paddle to lighten and darken certain areas. I’m doing it through Photoshop with such precision that I could literally come in and take that curtain in the back and just burn that down a little bit to get a little bit of detail or dodge, meaning, allowing less light so it stays lighter and doesn’t get so dark in the shadows.
And that’s what I did in the darkroom, but you get 1 good print out of 10. And you’d never really get what you wanted. It was always that you could see a little of the dodge or feel that this was a little dark over there. It just was a really imperfect sort of process and the digital world made me a better analog printer.
Luntz: It’s a beautiful image. Let’s go to America. There is a book called Vanishing America which is the third book of Michael’s.