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“An Unerring Eye for the Charmless”

By (December 1, 2010) No Comment

A conversation with photographer and novelist J. Robert Lennon~

OL: You describe this month’s cover photo as having been snapped inside a greenhouse. What was being grown in the greenhouse and how did you happen to have a camera? And what’s that skeleton outside?

J. Robert Lennon: That’s a greenhouse at Cornell University, where I teach–and it’s pretty common for me to be walking around town carrying a camera. Though I usually shoot with a digital camera these days, that was taken with a Leica M2 on Kodak color film. The stuff outside is an electric power substation.

OL: Color. A single color dominating. You like bars and flashes of bold color. Your black & white photographs are full of angles and slanting lines, whereas your color photographs really use the color, strikes and splashes of it. It’s more intense than color found in life (at least in direct or low light). You’re not reflecting life, then, but quite consciously making art objects. Did you begin taking Black & White and Color photographs at different times in your life or has this division always existed in the way you think of making pictures?

J. Robert Lennon: I always shot black and white when I was in high school and college; ultimately it’s still my favorite way to take pictures. I’m color-poor, I often can’t tell red from brown or blue from purple, and so the elimination of color from the equation allows me to concentrate, as you have observed, on geometry and texture. And you’re right, when I do shoot in color, I tend to make color the subject, and not always realistic color. The thing about going almost all digital, ironically, is that black and white is no longer the default–I need to convert my raw digital images to black and white if that’s how I want them to look. So I suppose my attitude towards my subjects is changing.

OL: Your pictures, it seems, frame something that wouldn’t otherwise be perceived as the most important element of a scene, and elevate it to prominence (satellite dishes above a door, the post of a greenhouse, a traffic cone in an ally). Do you see this as in any way analogous to what you do as a novelist — to foreground the mundane, make it curious (as in The Funnies, where you create an absorbing drama out of something as wallpaper-boring as a Family Circus style comic strip)?

J. Robert Lennon: I never thought of that before, but sure! I do like to foreground the mundane, in writing and art alike. My wife, the writer Rhian Ellis, hasn’t had much to say about my photography habit, but she did say two memorable things: one is “You have an unerring eye for the charmless,” and the other was to describe my subject matter as “something off in the corner.” I don’t think these were supposed to be insults. When our kids were little, we had a book, one of those “What To Expect” books, a child raising guide, and it listed a bunch of milestones, things your baby is supposed to be able to do at certain ages. And one of these milestones was, if I remember right, “pay attention to a raisin.” I think I never outgrew that one–I still like to pay attention to a raisin.

OL: Your pictures don’t shy away from didacticism. The hopeful faces reflected in a bus stop contrast quite deliberately with the defeated posture of the man inside, likewise the sturdy stride of a small old woman against the sturdy quiet of a firetruck at rest. Do you snap pictures to say something, or are these just the happy conjunctions of the developing process?

J. Robert Lennon: Well, not the developing process, per se, but the process of deciding what to shoot in the first place. I am not a proponent of the “spray and pray” method, where you take a zillion pictures and hope for the best. I actually take very few photos, even with a digital camera. So what I get is generally fairly selective. The picture you’re referring to is really rather sentimental, and not the kind of thing I tend to seek out…but there it was in front of me, on a street in New York, and I couldn’t resist.

Ultimately I’m not trying to say much with most of my photography, or my writing either. I am just trying to capture things that interest me, often for very obscure reasons. In the end I think I have fairly accessible taste, so there’s no great enigma to my readers or viewers. But the stuff of mine I end up liking best is generally stuff I made without much forethought.

OL: What kind of equipment do you use for these shots? And how much has it changed over the years?

J. Robert Lennon: I’m kind of a gear nerd, but most of what I shoot is with a Pentax 35mm SLR, Leica rangefinder, or Olympus micro four thirds digital camera. I spent a couple of recent years addicted to film, shooting it in the field and processing it at home–the picture of the red branches is a cross-processing experiment, I developed 35mm slide film in chemicals designed for color negatives. But I finally got a Leica M8 and Pentax DSLR last year, and so I can use all my favorite lenses in the digital realm now, and that’s usually what I do. There’s a newer Leica with an improved sensor, but it costs more than both my cars put together, so I think I’m good for a while, equipment-wise.

OL: Your pictures are unabashedly pro-beauty, but they also celebrate (and call attention to) human oddities. Do you go out looking for strange sights or do they find you?

J. Robert Lennon: They find me–or, rather, I find most things strange and beautiful. I don’t have to look very far, is what I’m saying.

OL: You are of course most famously a writer. What are you working on now? And do you write from strong visual cues, or does photography use an entirely different part of your mind?

J. Robert Lennon: I recently tried to write a novel about a photographer, actually–I spent a year on it and completed several drafts. But I shelved it. I think it’s probably best to keep the two areas of endeavor separate, and separate from my other great love, music. I’m sure there are parts of me where they are all slopping together, but I intend to go on pretending they’re unrelated. That’s the way I like to think of them.

I am redrafting a new novel with a vaguely science-fictional conceit to it–it’s quite different from my other stuff, and it has nothing at all to do with photography, I don’t think!

J. Robert Lennon
is the author of six novels and a story collection.  He teaches writing at Cornell University