This “photographer’s photographer” is known for his measured understatement and his influential books, such as The Pond (1985) and Berlin in the Time of the Wall (2004). His latest, Looking Up Ben James – A Fable, will soon be published by Steidl, and he’s currently working on his next, The Last Days of Fontainebleau, shot in his hometown, Washington DC
I started photography so young. I don’t know what I was thinking then, but looking back, it seems it allowed me to understand things that were not spoken.
I could not trust anything that was said. But if I could take a picture of it, then what I photographed really existed.
I was greatly inspired by seeing Chuck Berry play live. It was an Alan Freed rock’n’roll show at the Paramount Theatre [in Brooklyn], and I was 11. I thought, “This is what an artist does”, and I wanted to be him.
Lisette Model was my teacher. She used to call everyone “darling”. One thing in particular she taught me that rang true was what she said to another student. He had photographed something clichéd, which was light reflected on wet tree branches, and she told him, “Darling, you should not photograph effects but the thing itself. If you are interested in trees, you should photograph trees, not some random effect.”
Diane Arbus was one of the smartest people I ever met. I felt that I was in the presence of a remarkable person and artist. We took portraits of each other one day. She asked if she could shoot me, and I said, “Yes, if I can shoot you too.”
She put me in the middle of a handball court. It was someplace in the Lower East Side of New York, and I said I did not feel particularly comfortable standing there. She replied, “Whoever said having your photograph taken would be comfortable?”.
I was responsible for William Eggleston’s first exhibition. William Christenberry introduced me to him in 1972 and he showed me a box of black-and-white and colour prints. I instantly liked Bill and thought his photographs were remarkable, so we exhibited his work in a small space in Washington [the Corcoran Photography Workshop Third Invitational].
We became the closest of friends. In 1974, we went through the Mississippi Delta. We had two video cameras and I helped to shoot Stranded in Canton [on which Eggleston collaborated with filmmaker Robert Gordon]. The original edit of the film is 18 hours long and in there somewhere is some of the footage I shot.
My biggest regret is not meeting Marcel Duchamp. He is my idol, but I made the most serious mistake when my friend, the curator Walter Hopps, invited me to meet him in New York and I did not go. I had little money but was worried that I would have nothing to say to him. Stupid, stupid, stupid!
In the 1980s I was invited to Berlin. Michael Schmidt asked me to teach a workshop, and I instantly loved the city.
Because of a mix-up, no one came to pick me up from the airport. So I proceeded to drive until I came to the Berlin Wall. I just thought the Wall was hilariously funny – it was the best public sculpture I had ever seen. And, of course, totally evil – for sure the stupidest idea I had ever seen. I immediately knew I could photograph there.
The hardest photobook I worked on was The Pond. It took two and a half years to shoot and figure out. And from that point on I used it as a guidepost for everything else. But it has taken me 30 years to come back around and use that methodology again.
The book I am working on now actually has more resonance to The Pond than anything else I have worked on since then.
I wouldn’t be interested in continuing photography if I wasn’t still learning things. It is a continuous process.
I am often called a photographer’s photographer. I think the reason why is because I am only known in that one block of the Grand Palais at Paris Photo. I still cannot get a decent table in a restaurant.
https://steidl.de/Artists/John-Gossage-0921316154.html This article was first published in the February issue of BJP, available from https://www.thebjpshop.com/