What inspired you to start taking photographs, and what have been some of the most important milestones in your career up until now?
My father, a professional artist, trained me at a very early age to draw and paint. He also passionately exposed me to the history of art by way of numerous field-trips to art museums. Aside of the grandiose paintings and sculpture, it was the photography that intrigued me the most. At around the age of twelve, using my father’s medium format camera, I got to explore and document my surroundings. The second I shot my first roll of film and inspected the contact sheet I knew I was hooked.
Unlike the slow and deliberate act of painting or drawing, making photographs is electrifying; you succeed or fail in rapid successions. The camera also connected me to community; giving me purpose to intimately observe family and friends. This is a reoccurring theme that I have been exploring for well over forty years.
Checking off important milestones in my career:
At twelve, I fell in love with the medium of photography. This included every aspect of it, from the process of shooting, editing, darkroom work as well as the enjoying the audience the resulting material attracts.
In my teens, I worked as a journalist for a local paper. This experience helped me perfect my craft and to articulate the best possible narrative. One learns quickly that lousy photographs rarely are published but you can bet on good ones having the chance to make the front page.
College accelerated my explorations to help me find an individual voice. It added the question: “How is my work valid or pertinent in our time?” I also fell in love with films through a number of courses. Movies from this point on will have a major influence on how I construct a photograph. I also started using a 4”x5” view camera.
After college, I committed to making work exclusively for myself at all costs. I washed windows and worked in a lab to generate an income. And very content to function on this level.
At twenty-five I produced Bell Pond. It was my first mature body of work that depicted an urban community that frequented a public park and pond. It legitimized my career as a photographer concluding with a major show, sales and articles.
My next project Mall Series took three years to complete. I spent thousands of hours documenting mall habitat in one inner city mall. It concluded with my first museum exhibition. I was very proud of this work but knew it was too familiar for most people to see objectively. At that time, it was not well received.
In my late twenties I purchased an 8x10 view camera. And I have been using it ever since.
From this point onward I started a series of projects that will guide me for decades: Dinner Series, Beach People, Jacob’s House, Portraits and Celestial Series are some of the major ones.
Receiving grants and fellowships like the John Simon Guggenheim, NEA, and numerous Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowships, enormously helped liberate the burden of the expenses of materials and an occasional piece of equipment to continue my projects.
With Dad, is a twenty year commitment to document my father succumbing to Alzheimer’s. An obviously personal project that will be marked as my most difficult, and yet most spiritually based in my life. I was the unofficial artist in residents in a nursing home the last seven years of my father’s life. Its profound effect has been the glue for all art to follow in my life.
The making and editing of my autobiographical film Summer Spent over four years has changed how I evaluate my still photography. It raised my awareness to beware of becoming complacent or formulaic and for me to keep rethinking my past accomplishments to guide new work.
Teaching students how to see. This is an on-going process that has changed over decades. Each generation of students have a different perspective on how they interpret the world. My mission is to be sensitive to this so as to work effectively with them. This style of teaching also feeds me and helps keeps my art honest and connected to the present world.
How do you approach editing your work, and what advice would you give to others about evaluating their photographs?
I deliberately work with a cumbersome 8”x10” film view camera so as to think through an image before making a photograph. This brings my editing down to about one in six photographs that are keepers. A keeper is defined as a work that doesn’t hold anything back and allows me to identify to the subject on a number of levels. Universally editing is simply about weeding out images that do not add up. All good work comes from having a well thought-out idea. If an image does not equal my concept, then it is time to let it go.
Also I am not afraid to fail because failure breeds success. Strange as it is, making an incredibly bad photograph, and be painfully aware of it, means you hit rock-bottom. This sets up a series of challenges to break into a new territory. It is frightening as taking on a new relationship.
How do you decide on new projects to work on? Do you always shoot with a concept in mind or do you wait to be inspired as you go?
New projects are born from existing ones. One day you look back and you realize that all the while you were shooting landscapes a portrait or two found their way into the pile. Over time, you start asking yourself questions about them, and why are they inspiring. And before you know it, a project is in the works.
My Celestial Series might be one of a few acceptations. I am only engaged when an event takes place. Comets are
fairly rare, they appear for days or weeks, and then go away. It is like a brief affair, you become acquainted, fall in love, thinking you have a handle on it all, and before you know it, it fades away.
What ways have you found successful for promoting your work and finding a receptive audience for it?
The work always comes first for me with no specified audience intended. This keeps me independent to explore and expand possibilities with my work without the stress of diluting it in any way. I can never predict what will be successful or appealing to an audience out there. I am my own worst critic, and if I feel the work is soft in any way or lacking in depth, it will never be witnessed by others and I am most likely to destroy any evidence that it existed at all. Years back, I started photographing the stars and celestial events because it was simply a distraction from my other work and a time to play. A number of galleries insisted on showing this work and it sold incredibly well. Museums and collectors were hungry for it. I could have never predicted this. The work I made of my father succumbing to Alzheimer’s was never made with any intentions of making money. Far more importantly I made photographing and caring for him my job. Very early into his illness we discussed my intentions as a collaborative effort. It was near the end of his life, when he no longer recognized me or the camera that it became difficult to keep shooting. But at the same time, it was the most creative period of this work. It was my way of surviving and pushing through something we both started.
I cannot tell you what will happen next in my career. Projects continue and they expand and morph into other projects. I still play all the time and fail miserably as well. I am sure something of interest to others will come about. It always does.
Jenna, Aquinnah, MA, September 1, 1012, from the series Beach People
Rebecca, Aquinnah, MA, August 19, 2012, from the series Beach People
Roger, Aquinnah, MA, September 15, 2012, from the series Beach People
Merrimack, NH, January 9, 2011, from the Dinner Series
Worcester, MA, 1985, from the Mall Series
Worcester, MA, 1984, from the Mall Series
Worcester, MA, 1986, from the Mall series
Gene, Marlboro, MA, January 28, 2006, from the series With Dad
© copyright all images Stephen DiRado, all rights reserved