Damaso Reyes on Robert Frank, Photojournalism and Art

August 6, 2009  |  By
Filed under: Conversations

Taking inspiration from Robert Frank, Damaso Reyes has spent the last few years documenting social changes in the European Union for his project, The Europeans. Reyes is an artist and photojournalist who studied photography at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, honing his craft as a reporter for the New York Amsterdam News and other major news publications. The son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Reyes grew up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

As a Spanish-speaking, first generation American and a black man, Reyes, like Frank, grew up feeling he was both part of and outside of his community. That ability to be both insider and outsider is what allows him to move freely with his camera through worlds most people never see. As immigrants, Reyes’ parents were able to find a sense of civic belonging in the United States which, he has observed, continues to elude immigrants to the European Union. For this reason, he has chosen to photograph asylum seekers, whose dignity and humanity he tries to bring across in his images. Reyes’ inability to speak local languages has also helped him, much as Frank’s poor English helped him, to gain access to places such as closed-door EU government meetings, where he photographs as a fly on the wall.

Damaso Reyes, The Europeans: Young Turkish Women Wait for the Train

Damaso Reyes, The Europeans: Young Turkish Women Wait for the Train

Reyes shoots with a 35mm Leica, usually in black and white. His camera is the camera of his forebears, Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson, who pioneered the kind of from-the-hip photography that allows Reyes to inobtrusively capture a group of young Turkish Muslim girls waiting for a train in Berlin, whose range of dress reflects the variety of interpretations of tradition possible within the new Europe. His choice to eschew vivid color and large-scale printing sets him apart from most contemporary art photographers. Nonetheless, The Europeans is as much art as reportage. The images Reyes captures are open-ended and philosophical, whereas photojournalism is inherently factual in its approach. His compositions employ architecture, space and light to tell us something about the inner lives of each of his subjects. We may not know who or where they are, but we know how they feel.

I sat down with Damaso Reyes in his Brooklyn studio recently to discuss Robert Frank, The Americans, and his artistic philosophy. Here are some excerpts:

AV: Robert Frank has become someone who we view as the outsider, the artist as outsider looking in. Yet, you point out that even before he made The Americans, he had quite a bit of “insider” support. Could you run that down for me again?

DR: Well, you know, his work went through an evolution from being divided, at least in America, to being seen as the archetype of what it is he does. If you look at 20th century photo books, any list of the top ten, The Americans is going to be on it. But he came to this country as, literally, an outsider, from Switzerland. He came to work on this project, and he made these contacts within the photographic art world [Alfred Stieglitz] which allowed him then to get a Guggenheim [Fellowship], which was, in a sense, an imprimatur of acceptability. But, even that, it still took years before The Americans was published in this country and became acceptable. But, I think part of that transformation for him was this idea that, within the art community, that outsiders have a privileged position, and they have a unique perspective. He could do things that — he could photograph in a way that perhaps other American photographers couldn’t.

You look at people who were working around the same time, in America, you look at Dorothea Lange, you look at Walker Evans, and they’re making powerful work, they’re making work that does challenge the way we see the world, but the way in which they are presenting those images is very classical. They’re using large-format or medium-format almost exclusively. They’re making these images which are, in terms of the way you look at them, are very comfortable. Maybe what they’re depicting makes you think and challenges your assumptions, but the way these images are presented…and then you have someone like Frank, who’s shooting in men’s rooms, and cutting people’s heads off, and shooting these very interesting cityscapes and landscapes, and totally challenging the way that we view documentary photography in this country. And, maybe it was because he wasn’t beholden to the same models that American photographers were, it’s an interesting question to ask, he created the “outsider” brand in art photography.

Maybe you could say he was one of the first “outsider-outsider” artists in America, but then, that’s also representative of some of what we see in painting and sculpture and performance art at that time as well, but certainly in photography, look at the roots of photography, it was up until the early 20th century, a rich man’s hobby, with a few notable exceptions – rich women [laughs]. You know, you had to invest in thousands of dollars of equipment. You had to have the time, and the assistants to lug your equipment around. The 20th century brought us the Brownie and the 35mm camera, but still, up until the 50s, up until you really had the advent of the popularity of the Rangefinder — which is what I use now — photography was something you had to have a fair amount of time and money if you were going to do it on the art side, if you were going to do it on the serious side. And most of the people who were working in fine art photography [...] up until the 1950s are shooting with large or medium-format cameras, which is a very different way of working and requires a different set of resources, and probably a different level of social background.

Robert Frank comes in, and he was sort of middle class — he was middle class [...], compared to someone like Cartier-Bresson who comes from this incredibly rich family. I was walking down the street the other day, and I was thinking, wouldn’t it be nice to be Cartier-Bresson, where you could go to Africa, he took some trips when he was young to North Africa, I believe, and came down with some horrible dystentery or something, and there are these letters he wrote to his rich uncle saying, “oh, I’m going to die, unless you send for me to come back to Paris!” And I love Cartier-Bresson’s work, he challenged the way we see the world as well during that timeframe, but he had the sort of financial freedom to do that. He wasn’t worried about selling his pictures as much as some other photographers were, and by the time he became well-known he was part of Magnum and had a built-in audience in many of the picture magazines. But I think Robert Frank had a different kind of freedom. He had a kind of social freedom. And because he was coming to this country, and a foreigner, he was able to challenge our preconceptions of ourselves. He photographed people of color. He photographed poor people. He photographed mid-level politicians. He photographed all these people who our society doesn’t deem worthy of documentation or artistic preservation.

Damaso Reyes, The Europeans: The Dutch Interior Minister lights a cigarette during a meeting

Damaso Reyes, The Europeans: The Dutch Interior Minister lights a cigarette during a meeting

AV: He was an anti-monumentalist.

DR: Yeah. And that’s probably been the one thing that I’ve taken from his work, especially The Americans, more than any other thing, and I’ve sort of applied it to the project that I’m working on — this idea of photographing the people that history overlooks. Because, the project I’m working on is dealing with these very broad, systemic and thematic issues, immigration, economics, population movements, and how do these bureaucrats in Brussels pass a law saying that all mozzarella must be now in plastic packages, and how does that affect the guy whose family’s been making mozzarella for 600 years? We tend to, when we pick up the International Herald Tribune, or the New York Times, or the Washington Post, or the Economist, we hear from people in positions of power. These articles are mostly about people in some position of power, or authority. And that’s the tradition I come from — I come from a news photography background, even though I was trained as a fine artist as well, but professionally, my background is in news. And I’ve always been interested throughout my career, even before I started this project, in documenting the people who don’t get attention, whose voices are generally unheard. Because to me, these are the actually fascinating people.

The pictures we see of ordinary people, these are the things that we, as ordinary people ourselves, connect with. To me, that’s the power of documentary photography. It shows us ourselves, through a window or a lens or a mirror, whatever metaphor you want to choose, but I am not going to make a connection with someone I see on a movie poster or in People magazine, I might aspire to them, I might be fascinated with them because they’re living in a way that I’m not, but I don’t connect with them in a visceral way. But when I see a picture of someone who lives a life like I do, or who is living in the same city as I do or walking down the same street, or who looks like me, because I am a person of color, that’s powerful, I think. Certainly that’s more interesting than most of what we see in the media. So, I think in many ways, certainly for me, but I think for a lot of photographers and documentary photographers, Frank’s work was powerful because of who and what he chose to photograph, and how he decided to make those things important, and those things were worthy of being up on museum walls or being in a book of fine art photography. The way that we as a society, and this is still true today, consume published photographic images, we tend to see people who are not ourselves, we tend to see the powerful, we tend to see the people who our society admires, we tend to see things that are very far away, in different countries, but we don’t see ordinary life. We don’t see, by and large, people working in factories, we don’t see people taking the Metro, we don’t see people making dinner, we don’t see people at synagogue or church or things like that. And the times we do see ordinary life, it tends to be extreme.

There’s a photographer, a very successful documentary photographer named Brenda Ann Kenneally, and she actually moved about 15 years ago into Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, which is the neighborhood I grew up in. And she spent the next few years — and she’s still doing it now — documenting life there. But the work that she published, which the New York Times published, everything that gave her all this critical acclaim [...] was drug addicts, junkies, people who were just in the worst straits. And it’s not that these people don’t exist, they certainly do, but having grown up in the same neighborhood that she’s claiming to document, I didn’t see these people every day. I didn’t see these people every week. Where are the kids going to school? Where are the people going to church? Where are the people going to work? There’s no context for that kind of work. And often when we see urban documentary work, it is this sort of gritty, horrible, people suffering kind of thing.

Damaso Reyes, The Europeans: MTV plays in the background as an African asylum seeker makes a phone call

Damaso Reyes, The Europeans: MTV plays in the background as an African asylum seeker makes a phone call

One of the things I’ve chosen to focus on in this project is immigration, and more specifically asylum seekers, people generally from the developing world but also from Eastern Europe, who come to Western Europe seeking asylum. Sometimes they have legitimate claims because they are political refugees, refugees of conflict. Sometimes it’s really more of an economic thing — they want to come and make a better life, and there’s no easy, legal way to immigrate, so they show up to Germany or Austria where I was working, and they claim asylum. And yeah, these people have really difficult lives, but they also laugh, they smile, they live a life that’s not just misery. And it would be very easy for me, as a documentary photographer, to say, let me show the extreme plight that these people are in, and how much they suffer, and perhaps that will encourage some sort of change. But, I think it’s more interesting and more honest to show the full richness and complexity of people’s lives, not just the moments that make good pictures, although as a photographer and as an artist, you want to include great pictures too, but it’s very easy as a photographer simply to create visual cliches, to create images which you know the viewer will have some sort of visceral reaction to, and not really have to think all that much. Those aren’t the kind of images that I’m interested in creating. I’m really interested in creating very visually layered images that will reflect the way in which life is layered. We are not two-dimensional people, we are people who cry, we laugh, we eat, we get drunk, we go to church, we do all of these things, and I think as a photographer who is trying to capture life in Europe at this moment, I have a responsibility to capture that cross-section, not just the stuff that’s easy to capture but the stuff that’s subtle.

Damaso Reyes discusses compositional elements in Robert Frank’s Trolley — New Orleans, 1955

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