Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Interview with Photographer David H. Wells

The photographer David Wells visited us (he travelled from Providence on his Suzuki) and gave a presentation & visited classes on April 15th. Ian has now finished viewing All The President's Men and transcribed the bulk of his discussion with David, which follows.

David Wells came to The Gunnery on April 15th and gave a presentation of his photographs. Mr. Wells was born in Albany, New York in 1956, and has a Bachelor of Arts in the Liberal Arts from Pitzer College of the Claremont Colleges. He is a commercial photographer, photo-essayist, and photo-educator based in Providence, Rhode Island. His work has been published and shown in exhibitions around the world and he has received two Fullbright fellowships among several other prestigious grants.

Last things first: what advice would you give young aspiring photographers?

The answer is always the same. When I started out if you could expose film well and use a camera well you could get work, because not many people could do it. So as time went on people learned how to do black and white, so I started doing color and more and more sophisticated stuff because people couldn’t do it. The problem is digital has vaporized the whole craft question – anyone can do it. Then it becomes what is it that you can bring to it that no one else can. Is it style? For example, a lot of wedding photography is about relationships and portraits, and about customer service people liking you. If you’re doing food photography you have to be a great cook. If you’re doing nature photography you have to know your subject as well as you know photography. The photography part is completely sort of presumed. So the question is what do you do that somebody else doesn’t do that makes you different. And that is true of anything. Fashion, portraits, food, anything. So that’s the advice I’d give anybody: figure out what makes you different. If I was doing it again, I would study languages, simply because if there’s a hundred of us lined up and you speak Spanish or Chinese, you’ll get the job. I’d also maybe study anthropology or economics. Anything but photography really. The craft part isn’t want you should spend your four years in college on. Maybe spend it on language, anthropology, psychology, economics, political science, history, economics, maybe business so you know how to market yourself, but not on photography.

How’d you get involved with newspapers?

Well I was at a college, I had worked briefly in an art gallery and I abhorred it, I wanted to do something more stimulating. So I started rooting around to get a newspaper job. Back then – and I think this might still be true – newspapers were continually testing you to see if you’d screw up. I think the first newspaper job I ever got paid money for was to go down to the animal shelter to photograph a dog they were trying to adopt away. And if you could photograph a dog without screwing up, they give you another assignment and another assignment, continually testing you, and if you got to a certain point without screwing up they gave you a real job. That’s exactly how I started. Now it’s a bit more formal, you can get a degree in it.

What did you go to college to study?

History of photography. My mother wasn’t convinced; parents don’t generally look at photography as a career. So I studied history of photography and I learned a lot and a lot of what I talk about in all my classes – about how you look at a photograph and how your eye travels through a photograph and what makes a photograph work – all that came from studying history of photography. I apply that when I’m out taking photographs. I couldn’t have made a career out of it though, being a historian of photography, without going to graduate school, and I didn’t have the money at the time, so I became a photojournalist.

When did you first start taking pictures?

1972 in High school. I was failing French class in high school and I needed a class to transfer into. It was then called Industrial Arts; it’s Shop now. We did some photography in that and I didn’t really like the drilling holes, but when you put the paper in the chemical and the image pops up, I liked that. I had a very good teacher for it. I wasn’t very good at academic subjects so I did everything I could to hang out in the darkroom. He gave me a lot of leeway and I didn’t screw up, and one thing led to another and he ended up teaching me ninety percent of what I know. For me that was very pivotal.

Where do you think you’ll go next in your work?

I have no idea. The problem is it’s completely dependent on someone paying me. There’s no money coming in right now on future work, so I don’t know if it will go on hiatus or I’ll do it on my own. I’ve just started talking with a writer and I think we’re going to start focusing on Bangalore, where my wife’s family is from, and where most of the change you saw taking place in my photographs is happening.

I think we’ll do something on the changing urban landscape, the way Bangalore is being built and rebuilt is what we’ll focus on. If I can get funded I want to keep going on it. I’m also very interested in pursuing multimedia projects like the rickshaw piece that was shown during the slideshow.

[Thanks to David Wells for permission to reprint the photo above.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

David Wells is one of the best photographers of his generation and I would love to see more of his images in newspapers and magazines. This is posted by someone in Jerusalem who was inspired by his images of the Old City , those long shadows ... best regards !