A Conversation About Shadows: An Interview with David Travis


As the former curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, David Travis has been at the forefront of each shift in photography since 1973. He retired in 2008 and began teaching at Columbia College. These days, if you wake up early enough, you can find Travis photographing joggers and swimmers along the lakeshore near Promontory Point in Hyde Park.

I met with Travis at Café Jumping Bean in Pilsen to talk about photography, museums, and shadows.


Rebecca Memoli: I would first like to talk about the work you are making now.

David Travis: I've always photographed. Although, when I was a curator, I only photographed incidentally. I wasn't trying to have shows and compete with the really great photographers. John Szarkowski [director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), 1962-1991] photographed and published before his time at the museum began, but he didn't have shows [during his tenure at MoMA]. After he retired and had time to photograph, he had an exhibition and a catalogue. I was from a generation where the curators of photography had been photographers. So, it wasn't strange to me.


Chicago Lakefront, Jogger and Irish Setter at Sunrise,

August 28, 2015. Photo courtesy of David Travis.


RM: Your current work strikes me as being about capturing shadow rather than light. What is it about the shadow areas that you are drawn to? How did you come to start the project?

DT: I would get up in the morning, and I said, “I’m going to get out, and the first thing I'm going to consider is luminosity.” What is the source of light? In the morning it’s the sky. But if you go early, the sun isn't up yet. I thought, okay, that's gonna be the main starting point.

Then I need an event. I use this old technique that André Kertész used: to stay in one place that had a good [view] and served as a stage for impending action. I found a place on the lakefront that if it rained, there was a little puddle, and it was framed with the trees on both sides.

And so, I wait for people to come into frame. I would photograph them in the morning, when there isn't enough light to light them fully. They're all silhouettes. I said, this is better because the silhouettes are graphic shapes but still have a personality, and they don’t reveal the identity of the people.

So, what if I just forget about the subject and see the light? What kind of picture will the light permit me to take? Then I realized—when I'm photographing that way, I get these silhouettes. I love the silhouettes. They're so good, because when they are really sharp and frozen in time, they are accurate in a way we are not used to seeing for ourselves.

The first thing I recognized was ponytails. I mean, when you watch joggers, you don’t focus on their ponytails. They’re just flagrant in the silhouette! Oh my god, this is fantastic! So, already I'm taking a picture that I didn't go out to take it. This is what I wanted to do. I wanted to find out, [based on] the conditions, what new pictures are possible to make. So, the camera is kind of speaking to me.

And then the best thing that happened, the real picture that I had never seen before, was when two figures overlapped, and you can't tell whose legs and whose arms are whose. So, you get people who look like they have four feet running. I mean, it's kind of comical…. My god! If I was sitting here watching them, I wouldn't see this picture at all.

RM: Is there something you long to see return to photography? A style, subject, artist, etc.…?

DT: First, I've liked the idea that there's something in the photograph as a picture for my eyes to do, and second, that I can take my experience of looking at it and make something that's not only directed at the original idea of my being where I am. Like Lewis Hine has a very narrow idea of what [he] wanted the pictures for. But there's so much in his photographs as picture and as empathy. Still, [because] similar issues, like immigration, have come back, part of the original message didn't die out… Sometimes you have pictures that are made only for something specific. And you realize it did a job, and then later, there wasn't anything else in there… so they die out. But some of Jacob Riis’s [photographs]—they’re so bizarre. They weren't even [made] anticipating a composed picture. He wasn't touting anything about that. He was dealing with an actual subject as he encountered it.

I do look for how [the photograph] was made. And this makes me kind of old-fashioned. I realize I just have to let go of the critical attitude—let go of some overpowering idea to which the photographer is trying to force an equivalence. Maybe this is my front door entrance to a subject. For me, that’s better.

In the last decades, a lot of political, racial, or gender-[related] issues that are good to talk about are hard to picture in original ways. If an issue becomes a photograph, I feel you also want something else in that work than the issue alone. Something for your eye to do, even something that perhaps leads you to twist the intended meaning, as dogmatic ideas get fairly rigid. If it's about one of the great liberal issues in life, all the discussion of the values of the picture and how it comes into being are squashed. Well, that's okay. We [are] going down the same path. We don't need to bash each other around.

RM: What role do you think museums play in the movement toward diversity?

DT: Oh, I think they've been told they have not played a great enough role… Dawoud [Bey] is a good example. He says part of his personal program is to have black people in pictures that might end up in museums or someplace that they are part of the whole society. They’re not invisible… Some would say they were invisible—or they're just not featured—or they're just incidental. And so that was why he wanted to photograph black culture initially, not to show that it was a very separate thing, but it was just always here, and that it was not being addressed [in the U.S.].

We love his work. So that's not hard. But it is no secret that much of the art world was a closed and privileged sphere evaluating and admiring those who could afford to pursue the vocation of being an artist in America. For much of that period, photography was exclusive too.

Robert Frank was one of the first [widely recognized] photographers to show black people in their environments, and it wasn't a pretty picture. It wasn't quite a damning one, because he was not a journalistic muckraker. He was an individual observer of what he saw in plain sight as he looked around him.

You know, that's one of the things that people hated about the book [The Americans, 1958]. It wasn't about the America that Life magazine was promoting. I should mention that long before I got there, the Art Institute of Chicago was the first museum to mount an exhibition of Frank’s photographs of The Americans.

There would be black photographers who were working in the industry or on their own, but it was rare. Gordon Parks, he got a foothold and even worked for Life magazine… There was also Roy DeCarava, but beyond those two, there wasn't an abundance to choose from. That would improve gradually.

The museum was very white. All the all the trustees were white. Mostly it was men but [there were] some influential women, however… James Wood was the first director to recognize the problem and began to make some changes in the 1990s.

Now, everybody's woke, a bit, and they're trying hard. Some museums are selling a Jasper Johns so they [can] get a lot of money for it, and they’ll put all that into diversified acquisitions.

It's exciting now. Why don’t we see more of, say, Jacob Lawrence in the collection? Well, because there's only a handful of collectors who had amassed contemporary art, mostly through the art market of galleries and auctions. When I looked at the pattern of acquisitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art over the decades, I found they are heavily gifts from collectors. You can get great artists that way, but you don't get diverse artists…

RM: Do you think photography has a unique ability to move art and museums toward diversity?

DT: It may be true. Because photography—it's so easy to make while owning your own means of production.  If you're a filmmaker, you gotta have a sound person. You gotta have actors, you gotta have all kinds of stuff. But [in] photography, you can actually own and manage all the stuff. You can even keep it at a cellphone level.


Point Swimmers Chicago, Linda Swimming at Sunrise, October 4, 2017. Photo courtesy of David Travis.


RM: Who should we be looking at right now in terms of contemporary artists?

DT: Well, I'm not a good person to ask, because I've kind of kept myself out of it since retirement eleven years ago. I’ve become a photographer and been looking at what I’ve been doing myself. I do see photographic masters getting recognition, finally. Dawoud Bey is the prime example. He is contemporary, but not “emerging” if that is what one means by contemporary. But I find all those parts [of the photograph]—the subject, how it came into being, and the idea—are beautifully balanced in his work. It doesn’t mean that other great artists don't have that or that they have to be balanced at all. But he is one of those people. The David Hockney [exhibit at Richard Gray Gallery] was a good experience for me, but then that's an older, established artist.

When I was at Columbia, there were quite a few people I knew, came to know, or found out about. But I was teaching the history of photography up to 1940. Still, I acquired photographs for myself from Anahid Ghorbani, Clarissa Bonet, and others, including some undergraduates. On the faculty I acquired work by Dawoud Bey, Paul D’Amato, [and] Jay Wolke, and [I] wrote for Melissa Pinney.

I get excited about lots of pictures. And, you know, they're all over the map. I like these pictures that people out in Nebraska and Kansas are taking of thunderstorms. They're storm chasers. They're all nutcases, the people, they drive into tornadoes. I know they have to do a lot of Photoshop massaging to get these really dark pictures more luminous. Well, that's part of the game here. I can only enhance something that's already there. If you saw this with sunglasses and high contrast, you would see a picture not unlike what they're doing when they get worked up. So, it's there. It would make an interesting show. They wouldn't sell for $40,000.

RM: That's kind of a distinguishing factor. But not everything in the Art Institute would sell for $40,000.

DT: Oh no, not at all. My god.

RM: Do you think everything that's in the Art Institute has some sort of inherent artistic value?

DT: At the time the first photography curators were acquiring photographs, we were explaining what it was to the trustees. Early in my career, the odd explanation was that the photograph was highly photographic. Szarkowski wrote beautifully and more deeply about that idea. He thought it could be any kind of thing, but it had to participate in the medium. So, that's a very Modernistic idea. If you didn't show something about the medium, you weren't being modern.

I think the photographic field has gotten to be almost too big. When I first started, we would see anybody. Then we got to be overburdened quickly because there were too many graduate students, even in Chicago: IIT, SAIC, Columbia. Well, you're making too many people looking for careers in art photography. They're all excited, they have to come and see me. There's no room for all of that… and then there's New York. Now the AIC will not review portfolios.


Point Swimmers Chicago, Nial in a Ninja Dive, August 30, 2017. Photo courtesy of David Travis.


RM: What artists from the past make you think of the present?

DT: That’s a more interesting question. Well, I don't have a prepared answer. It's not Walker Evans anymore—as much as I like him.

And it’s not Robert Frank or anything like that, because I've gotten so used to everybody never coming up to his excellent standard.

Strange to say, and this would never make it in the current art world, I am eager to write an essay on Eliot Porter, because I think I have ideas about him that no one's expressed. And about every third month, I see an article about William Eggleston being the first great color photographer. Yeah, in the mode that Walker Evans left to us. But what if you're a landscape photographer? There's nobody as great as Eliot Porter. He invented the Sierra Club style.

And people say, “Well, these are just nice pictures.” Okay, you give me somebody, a photographer, who's had more influence on the ecology and conservation, one of the biggest issues of our time, than Eliot Porter and Ansel Adams. Both went beyond all those calendars and photographs and served on the Board of Directors of the Sierra Club. But while Adams is completely known, Eliot Porter has one page on Wikipedia.

When Rebecca Solnit writes about Porter, she doesn't so much get into the photography part. But she writes about him as this guardian of the environment. And I thought, okay, there's a bigger idea that we're all stuck with now. He has much to teach us about our stewardship of nature but just as much about how photographs come to be pictures. He understood optics like few others have, because color is a totally optical phenomenon. And that nobody talks about it is just amazing.


Rebecca Memoli is a Chicago-based photographer and curator. She received her BFA from Pratt Institute and her MFA in Photography from Columbia College. Her work has been featured in several national and international group shows. Her latest curatorial project is “The Feeling is Mutual”.



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