Fine Art Photography Daily

David Carol: An Interview with an Irreverent Master

The name David Carol may sound familiar.  He writes the Emerging Photographer Column for PDN and is a regular contributor to Rangefinder Magazine with his Photo Finish column.  He’s a taste maker and booming voice in the fine art community (often juroring competitions, even on Facebook, and is a reviewer at many photo events), but he’s also so much more than that. David appears to have an irreverent approach to art and life, that is at once devil and angel (or Hell’s Angel), but he is actually very much a dedicated seer and thinker, someone who above all else is a photographer’s photographer. His desire to continually make work, to stay engaged in the real world, to cut away the falseness and artifice that surrounds the actual act of making photographs, is a refreshing and inspiring approach to this journey. What I have appreciated about our friendship is that he is a straight shooter and nails the bulls eye each and every time.
David’s day job is Director of Photography for CBS Outdoor, where he has worked for 20 years.  He’s a father, photographer, and active participant in our community and I thought it was time have a chat with him as I will see David in Santa Fe Saturday night, for his lecture and book signing at photo-eye Books.  David has three books to share, 40 Miles of Bad Road (a ten year retrospective of his personal work), All My Lies are True (a collection of photographs taken throughout his career), and his newest book, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.
Baby looking at Woman

Favorite cocktail? Kinda think you are a beer guy…

I’m not a big drinker, never really was. But, I definitely can bang out 4-6 frozen margaritas if I’m on a beach in Mexico!

14th Street

You’ve had a wild and crazy life, from New York to Paris, around the world and back again, now living 2 miles from where you grew up. You’ve probably experienced a good chunk of what there is to experience on this journey through all your various photographic incarnations, and yet you are more enthusiastic than ever. Are you on drugs? 

Like the booze, I’m so not a drug guy. I think my drug is that I’m insatiable and stubborn. I also become obsessive when I’m interested in something. That and I huff airplane glue…

Boy with Hands

What were your early days like? Strict parents? Popular in High School?

Hmmmm…OK, when I was little I was a jock. Baseball, Tennis, Handball, stuff like that. Should I be honest here? From around 13 on I was kind of doing my own thing. At the end of 10th grade, whatever age that is, I moved out of the house. Rented a carriage house with a friend. So, looking back that was kind of odd, At about the same time I started hanging out at clubs in the city. CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City…My life was progressing in the only direction possible.

Wow, this is getting interesting. Then what happened? How did you find yourself a photographer? 

Well, I’ve never told this in print before. One of my best friends Frank Russo got a camera for his 21st birthday. I was 18 and I wanted one too. So, I went out and bought the same one, a Minolta XG-7 with a 50 1.8 I think. I started taking pictures of my musician friends, girls, rocks splashing in water. I photographed the dumbest stuff, but it was fun!! Anyway, I wanted to go to art school and I didn’t think I drew well enough, so I figured I would try to get in using photography. During my interview at SVA I was asked what kind of photography did I want to do. I had no idea what they even meant so I just said Fashion. They said that’s great, we don’t get many fashion photographers applying here. I think that’s why they let me in.

What led you to work with a Leica for so many years? 

 I wanted the best camera equipment made. I took my student loan money and bought a Leica M4-2 with a 35mm lens new at Camera Barn in New York City in 1980.

I read that as a photographer you like to organize chaos. What does chaos look like? 

My hair in the morning.

You are a purist, like myself, still unwrapping rolls of film, using Leica M’s and Hasselblad XPan cameras, developing film in Rodinal using a point source enlarger. What the hell is wrong with you? 

I have never consumed milk!

Why are you so uptight about altering your images? They might look better cropped.

I crop the shit out of everything!! Did I just type that or think it? I like the black border. If we can figure out a way to keep that and crop, I’m in.  Seriously though, I used to be adamantly against cropping. But, now that I’ve been working more with private students I understand and am more accepting of the idea. Not necessarily for me, but for photographers in general. I will say this. I have one photo in my book 40 Miles of Bad Road…that is cropped slightly for technical reasons and the black border was added sort of.  But, I’m not telling which one.

How would you describe your photographic legacy?

Wow, will I have one. Geeeezzzz, OK. I don’t know what it will be, but if I could write it myself it might go like this: David Carol took pictures that were interesting, compelling and true to himself. But, if I’m in charge of this deal I also want to be seen as nice, approachable and hopefully generous with my time and knowledge, what little of both I have to offer.

I think you change your profile picture on Facebook more than anyone I know. Are you a fan of the self-portrait?

I think I look bizarre. Its kinda like that deal with Gordon Liddy. He was afraid of mice, so he caught one, cooked it and ate it to get over his fear. I put up pictures of myself. Same deal.

All kidding aside, how does someone go to the School of Visual Arts, work at The Image Bank in Paris, spend 20 years as the director of photography for CBS Outdoor, mix and mingle with rock stars and celebrities, and still have such a clear vision of what you want to capture? Do you wear glasses? 

Who was kidding? Here’s my truth. It sounds anti-intellectual but, I don’t think about what I want. I just shoot anything that looks right to me. I think all my pictures kind of look the same, but so did all of August Sanders. Its that easy and that simple. I only shoot stuff that looks right to me. I do wear glasses. I’m always in sunglasses during the day because the sun bothers my eyes and yes, they are prescription. I have like 8 pairs of Persols. I don’t care about stuff that much, but if I like something I get more then is required.

Do you have advice for emerging photographers, since you write a column under the same name for PDN?

Yes, of course!  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it here because I believe it. Take your work seriously, but not yourself. Have fun with it and don’t worry about being in shows, making books or selling your work. Just focus on taking pictures that please and satisfy you. If, let’s say after 10 or 15 years you have enough good stuff to make a book or have a show that’s fantastic. But at the end of the day if you’re gonna commit your life to doing this, you better be taking the photos that make you happy.

State three positive and three negative things about today’s current photographic landscape. 

1) Social Media
2) Digital
3) Affordable

Negatives: Yep, the same three.

I’m not being snarky (never used that word before in my life) but I think its true. The best and worst of photography today is that it’s cheap, it’s easy and you can get exposure without earning it.

So obviously you are not relaxing now that you have photographs in the permanent collections many stellar museums, including The International Center of Photography, The Museum of Fine Art in Houston and the National Gallery and seem to know every gallerist, editor and curator on the planet. What are your goals now that you’ve reached the Everest of the photo world? 

OK, so here’s the deal on that. Some of the museums have photos some have books, some have both. I don’t really save records of where my stuff is. I do know that The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston has the largest collection of my work thanks to Anne W. Tucker. Here’s the weird part. I know I shouldn’t say this, but it doesn’t matter to me anymore. It did at one time. I wanted my work in museums, I really wanted that so I could say I was in museums. I thought it would impress people and it did. Now, its just part of a resume. Although there are museums I still want to be in. For example, The Museum of the City of New York. That seems so cool to me. I guess because I’m from New York. I now have work going into their collection thanks to Sean Corcoran. There are a few others I would like to be in, but, I dunno…It all seem so unreal. My only photographic goals these days are to keep taking pictures that I like. Sound so lame, but its nice to actually feel that way and not just be saying it because I think I should.

You seem like the quintessential New York photographer, where the press of humanity is a big part of your image making, but you are an on-the-road kind of guy too…is there something you don’t photograph? 

I don’t photograph homeless people or people that can’t defend or protect themselves. I genuinely feel its exploitative and it doesn’t interest me to do or see. Pick on people your own size…

I’m going to meet up with you in Santa Fe this Saturday at Photo-eye Books (3pm – 6pm) for your book signing…which of your three books will you be signing? Any new publications swimming around that bandanna wrapped head? 

I’ll sign anything they put in front of me! I don’t have a bandanna except on Halloween. I’m always a pirate. All I need is a gold earring, a bandanna and an eye patch. Arrrrrrrrrrrr!

Actually, there is something I learned a long time ago from two photographers. When I was in my early 20s  I started collecting photo books. I just love books, still do and I actually think its the best way to look at photographs. Anyway, I went to a book signing with Bruce Davidson. I was a young kid and all excited to have him sign my books. I waited on line and when it was my turn I handed him 4 or 5 of  his books, all first editions. He looked at me a said, “If I sign these for you they will become much more valuable. So, I’m not going to do it. Why should I give you money?” What a jerk! The guy running the signing knew me and asked Bruce to do it as a favor to him. So Davidson did it but first asked me my name. As he signed them he explained that if he signed the books to me personally then they wouldn’t be worth as much. What a dick. Photographer number two was Irving Penn. I contacted his studio and asked if he would sign my books, again all first editions of his best books. They invited me up, he signed everything and couldn’t have been more of a gentleman, a total class act. Now listen, I’m not comparing myself to either one of these legendary photographers, but I sure as hell will never act like Bruce Davidson. Ill sign anything that anyone has whether or not they bought it from me or not. I want everything in my life to be fun and positive.

If you were to have dinner with 3 photographers, living or dead, and one celebrity, living or dead, what would you order? 

Who is paying? Well, either way I’m ordering whatever their serving at Sukiyabashi Jiro, because that’s where we are eating!

Then I’m definitely joining you…and you are paying. You can afford it, you have a day job!

What scares you? 

Photographically, not caring anymore i think…I dunno, nothing really. God, that was a total bullshit answer. Oh, heights. I’m afraid of heights.

And finally, what would be your perfect day? 

Is it weird that Ive been trying to come up with something special and I can’t? I don’t really need much more than I already have. That can’t be right… OK. Me and everybody I like at a private resort in Italy with copious amounts of food and everybody gets their own feather!!!

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