“They didn’t talk about cameras, they talked about ideas. They created a space of real critique and that drove me to make better pictures, to be curious with a camera — and just enjoy the ride.”
How essential is travel to developing yourself as a photographer? And “travel” photography — often seen as quite cliché and teeming with awful images.
To us, travel is one of the most important things you can do that helps you grow and develop as a photographer, and as a person. And not necessarily ambitious journeys across the world; sometimes all you need is a train trip to the next city, the other side of the country, or perhaps a bus ride over the border.
Take away the familiarity and your bubble of comfort: How do others live? How do they experience life differently to yourself? How have the moments you experienced while away from home and familiarity — good and bad — affected you as a person and creatively? Are you changed?
American photographer David Lurvey is featured this week along with his series Kolkata Blue. The work was made after Lurvey jumped on an opportunity which offered him the chance to make these photographs in Kolkata, India. As Lurvey puts it, “the strength in the photography is in the looking” — and it’s in the constant looking (as simple as it sounds) at all the different things, peoples, cultures, moments existing in the world and offered to us that we learn and grow.
Read the full interview below:
I grew up in Minneapolis, in the US state of Minnesota, the middle child of two public school teachers. I became interested in art through both my parents; my father was my art teacher at school and my mother a quilter, fabric-crafter and otherwise encouraging force. We’d go to art museums a lot.
I moved east to study filmmaking. Through some of the professors and friends I met there, though, I found myself more drawn to still photography. Now I live in Brooklyn, New York, and I studio manage a small architecture firm, eat well and go to dance music parties.
What kind of photography are you interested in?
I describe the kind of photography I am most interested in making as “straight photography”.
To me that means using a camera to make pictures of the world as I see it in real life. The strength of photography is in the looking, and I’m interested in looking plainly; I find that the world around me is rich enough as it is.
I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that I find myself reacting to things around me rather than going out into the world with real set notions of what photographs I want to make. It’s hard for me to start from scratch in any creative endeavor.
What’s your story?
Anika Steppe, Ron Jude, Nick Muellner. Those three people got me into photography. I met all of them at very impressionable moments in college and they introduced me to a corner of photography that I had no idea existed.
They encouraged me in my practice early on. They showed me work that was asking questions and pushing narratives that I wanted to capture through filmmaking but hadn’t been able to at the time. They didn’t talk about cameras, they talked about ideas. They created a space of real critique and that drove me to make better pictures, to be curious with a camera — and just enjoy the ride. Thanks y’all.
Let’s talk about your series ‘Kolkata Blue’.
One of my best friends was making a documentary film on a Fulbright Scholarship in Kolkata, India. He asked me to join him and help with finishing the film — to be an extra set of hands during a fall season festival that was the subject of his film.
I jumped at the opportunity and spent two months exploring the city and a bit around West Bengal. This work was motivated by that exploration and engagement with the city, and application of my process to a new space.
I found myself wondering a lot about what the different things I saw were, what they were for and where they were going. Huge piles of raw material would show up on street corners one day and be gone the next. I still can’t tell what the white staircase was for.
I’m interested in sculpture and feel that my photographs, at their best, operate in that conversation as much as they do in the photographic one. Kolkata is not a touristic city per se, but looking back at these pictures I think I was looking for some sort of monument, some object to capture in a moment in time.
The title comes from these blue and white diamonds that were being painted all over the city, on the instruction of a minister of the state to reclaim the area from it’s red history.
Are there any moments you had during making the work which stick out?
There was one walk I made from Kumartuli to the subway station where I had had the impression that I may have seen two dead men.
The first was a man lying on the ground. This is not uncommon in Kolkata as people sleep on the sidewalk at any time of day. But there was something uncanny about this moment.
While I only caught a glimpse out of the side of my vision, I saw a woman and a younger man approaching this man on the ground with a level of urgency — which is uncommon, as most people lying on sidewalks are ignored completely.
It was not this experience alone that made me think he could be dead; it was the second man a few blocks later. This person was also lying on the ground but I got a full view as we passed. He looked more like a dead person than anyone else I have ever seen outside of a casket. It was then that it hit me — the urgency of those two going to help the first man I had seen had stirred in me the thought that he might have been dying. It took me seeing the second man to recognise that. But, who knows, they both could have been napping.
Do you find yourself changed at all since making this work?
Making this work came in two parts. There was the taking of pictures that happened and was an extension of my time and experiences in a part of the world I had never been, and then there was the crafting of this particular sequence into something that felt cohesive and meaningful which happened in the year or so after returning home to the US. The question of whether I am changed from making this work is a difficult one for me to answer but I’ll try by unpacking each part.
Living in Kolkata for two months, I certainly encountered things I hadn’t before and I am undoubtedly in a different place now than I would be had I not.
Thinking back on that time, I remember feeling restless with where I was living — in Ithaca, NY — at the time and I welcomed the bustling vibrancy of Kolkata in contrast. It was another reminder (similar to a semester I spent in London as an undergraduate) that I like living in big cities and the idea of walking out the door to too much to do and see was not overwhelming, but motivating. There’s an urgency I like. I came back to the states and immediately started applying to jobs in New York and making that move happen.
The second process by which this project came together was in the editing of images back in the states. I had just moved to New York and bought a photographic printer from an artist who was selling all her studio equipment to leave the city.
It was my best decision ever. I can’t emphasise how important seeing images off of the screen is to editing a sequence. Being totally self-sufficient in my process has been really liberating. It’s why I stopped shooting film — because I hated having to rely on someone else or sub-optimal equipment for scans.
This sequence in particular, more so than other projects I’ve put together, confronted me with the old ‘kill your darlings’ adage. There were pictures I really liked on their own that I tried to hold on to, but eventually took out to make the whole piece stronger. And on the other side, photos that made it in late worked to connect the dots. The below photograph of the fish was the last one to make it. This edit still holds up for me.
I don’t know if this necessarily answers the question of whether making this work changed me. I guess the answer is yes, of course. It was a step in my journey.
What are you up to next?
I made some new photographs at the end of last summer that feel like the start of a larger project. Right now the title is Passenger and it has got me thinking about a certain child-like feeling of trusted surrender.
This work came out of a collaboration about tenderness, with my friend Sunny Leerasanthanah. I am mostly hoping to just keep making work in the capacity that interests me, and keep putting together shows with friends and making better and better photographs.
What are you recommending?
I’ve been reading a lot of short stories this year — two collections I can really recommend are Jefferey Eugenides’ Fresh Complaint and Danish author Dorthe Nors’ Karate Chop.
There is something about the open-endedness of a short story that I am drawn to, which captures what I am trying to do with my photography. There is a suggestion of narrative that leaves an impression but drops you off before the end. That space is fertile.
Some might see this as lazy storytelling or a lack of follow-through, but you should be allowed to just begin a story.
It’s this idea that the overall impression a work makes can be more than the sum of its parts. Like the last scene in A Serious Man. That’s my type of ending.
For watching, I keep thinking about this movie called Midnight Special, a low-key science fiction film. Texas cults. Michael Shannon on the run. Need I say more? Oh and watch A Serious Man if you haven’t!
For listening, I’m going to shoutout my favorite mix blog, Truants. Three massive ones in a row this fall from DJ Lag, Courtesy and Call Super are good places to start. Dance music is fun.
Finally, can you pinpoint one photograph that has influenced you?
This is one of my favorite images from Michael Schmidt’s masterpiece Lebensmittel. His work has been hugely inspiring for me and I can only hope to achieve the subtlety of composition, layering and texture he was able to capture so well.
He had a rigorousness of craft and a dynamic breadth of vision for projects that I really respect. He’s definitely an idol of mine and I think about this image a lot. If someone wants to buy me this book, I’ll allow it.