Science Projects Volume IV:Robin Cracknell’s ‘Cine’.


A Conversation with Robin Cracknell about ‘Cine’.

AV: We are really quite honored to have you back Robin, thank you for accepting our invitation upon hearing of your news.

You have quite an important show ‘Cine’ coming up in just a few months, at Whitecross Gallery & I understand that the plan is to have it in conjunction- with the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London?

The ‘Cine’ series has been in the making for 15- 20 years, yes?

RC: We are still in the planning stages but the idea is to exhibit the Cine images at The Whitecross Gallery but to get the ICA involved- in some capacity.

The ICA cinema was my original source of all this material, from almost twenty years ago when I first moved to London.

Ideally, because there is so much material, the exhibit could run jointly with some works at the Whitecross & some at the ICA cinema, but this may be too much to ask.

AV: What a fantastic concept.
I would prefer the conjunction of both shows, quite exciting!

Especially, due to your artistic history & evolution, the role that the ICA has played in it, which is dually fascinating & quite a draw.

I must say, some of your ‘Cine’ work & it’s tangible history, how I register with the work emotionally & intellectually, parallels that of when I view & experience some of the artwork of the Kienholz’s.
Unrelated, in a few obvious ways, yes. Yet, their work has similar unique associations- with image & place as an experience.

Especially- your image of a ‘shadow man’ entering a bedroom. &, another image with a man, again- with his back turned to us, in a room with a nun, with the odd subtitle “I looked for you everywhere” I love those!

I wish to have more of these kinds of unusual visual experiences.
Surreal, at times confrontational.
Meaningful & multiplicand timeless sequences created for our analysis & somehow, intensely moving.
These moments are filled with so many possibilities & routes for intention, crisis, liberation & observation.
Do you understand what I am trying to get my finger on?


RC: Kienholz, yes!

I wouldn’t have made that connection but you’re right.
Not just in those ambiguous spooky places they built, but the way a lot of their work seems half-remembered and jumbled together.

His portable war memorial, a monument to death right next to a happy couple at a hot dog stand, is a good example of something the ‘Cine’ images do: contrary images sitting rather uneasily together.

& I too, love the shadow man entering the bedroom.

The scenario could be completely innocent in the context of the movie but, viewed separately, it has a creepy & predatory feel.

That’s what fascinates me about these images. We have to make assumptions about what is going on with so little information.


AV: Exactly!
If anything we thrive on our assumptions as to these visual experiences, they get us to become much more introspective & perceptual about ourselves, others, the world & our presentations & constructs within it.
& psychologically, with unfolding dramas, anticlimactic urgency, disclosure, memory, etc.

When shall ‘Cine’ be shown Robin?

RC: Ideally, early Summer. This is the first time I’ve tried to get two galleries to work together so I don’t know how easy or complicated it will be.

AV: I do hope it shall include a union of Whitecross & the ICA. Oh ICA, you must make this happen, please do make this happen for us.

Since Digital Cinema is taking over theaters, where shall you find your clippings?

RC: Unless some kind soul reads this & invites me over, I doubt I’ll ever find an equal to the ICA projection room the way it was back in the late 80’s.

Reels of 35mm film are still used here & there but it’s rapidly becoming obsolete & I just feel I’ll never be in the right place at the right time again to put together such a grand library of discarded gems.

AV: I am imagining now, a film documentary for such an occasion.

You, in a wonderful old theater, a projectionist in attendance & loads of clippings to sort through, a light box, your interpretations. What a documentary.

There must be some lovely old 35mm theaters somewhere, loaded with clippings. Must be, any readers to this Volume, if you run such a place, know of one, please do not hesitate in contacting Robin to arrive & find his gems!
Hello, Music Box.

What do you think of digital cinema, & do you think there is a difference in the quality of the visual experience?


RC: I am not interested in nostalgia & I promise you I’m not one of those boring types who bemoans technology & gets misty-eyed about vinyl, gate fold sleeves & liner notes, etcetera.

But, without getting all ‘Cinema Paradiso‘ on you, I think there is- a magic in light passing through a strip of film & projecting a moving drama on a screen.

Digital cinema will produce wonderful things but, for me, that little bit of magic will disappear.

Digital processes replicate everything so well, I’m not even sure what I’m looking at these days.

So, sitting in the seat staring up at the screen, I don’t think I could tell one from the other.

AV: Yes we filter through & resurrect quite a bit of nostalgia don’t we.
So precious, our new millenium is! One minute it’s a meeting of the 1890’s & the roaring 20’s- then, ah it’s the 60’s meets the 80’s meets the early 90’s, in some of the most mundane, limited & clearly commercial ways. Too many Grungy Flappers or- not enough!? Perplexing, ironic. 1992, all over again.

Who are we, now.

What does it all mean.. I think we know.
It is specifically about your medium & your process- I believe?
Your artistic medium, film, has it’s own transcendental quality, which through application of your creativity, interpretation & understanding of these pieces of film, results in the works.

For me, the way you present a sensorial experience & what ‘presence’ can mean, has a rare verity.

I agree with you when you say,” I think there is a magic in light passing through a strip of film and projecting a moving drama on a screen.”

I am able to easily recollect times where I have watched 35mm.
Eraser Head!
Kiarostami, Bergman, Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, on the side of a NWU building last summer, among others.
With 35 mm I sense a films moments before projection, hands some times make shadows on the screen for adjustments.
& then it erupts, a little bit of soft ticking sometimes & it does have a magic light, yes, a transparent watery voyage which takes you into its thread.
Soon enough, I forget, just follow, entering the drama of a world & its inhabitants.

& oh! Incredibly hypnotic!
I never fall asleep during digital projections, but I must admit, some of the best small naps ever taken were from watching films. I’ll enter an ether of inky soft, ticking dream ‘film’ sequences intermixed with erasure! Dreaming, until I wake & realize I lost my way. Wondering.
How, on earth? Endings- are quite profound with film.
The experience somehow becomes so tangible, incredibly warm with depth, & then, time to take it’s memory home.

I suppose I enjoy both, but I think that Film should be able to continue to thrive & it does, just less so..


RC: First of all, you are so right about the moments of anticipation before a movie starts.

People preparing to escape their reality for two hours. It’s odd isn’t it?
All these strangers sitting together in a room staring at light flickering on the wall?

Laughing together, crying together.

A friend of mine who works in a hotel, told me recently, that hotels, with their wide staircases, distinctive scents & eroticism- are all about secrets, & lies!

I think the same is true about cinemas.

Maybe, it’s not particularly erotic (for some, maybe?) but it’s a place where people go to lose themselves for a couple of hours, let down their defenses, become vulnerable in the safety of the dark.

It’s an unusual little ritual. Quite intimate in a way…

As far as traditional film is concerned, although most film manufacturers appear to be either downsizing or closing up shop, I can’t see film movie- making ever disappearing completely.

Commercially, it may not make sense any more but I think there will always be a demand for it.

I’ve been thinking about buying a Holga recently, but every time I go to this shop in London they seem to be sold out, so there are obviously plenty of ‘Lo-fi’ photographers out there still.

We’ll see less of ‘old school’ cinematography- but it will continue to thrive within the communities that appreciate it.

AV: Yes, it is quite wonderfully odd, escaping reality together, in a room, laughing & crying together & really such a new- ritual.

“Hotels, with their wide staircases, distinctive scents & eroticism- are all about secrets, & lies!”
Places, really all places, yes, we often take for granted their hidden, undisclosed forces & storytelling, yes!

Light, all it’s varied speaking forms & acts in the darkness, yes, reminds me of the Shadow Plays or Shadow Theaters which our mother took us to in Ubud Bali, plays of fire.

I agree, there will always be a demand for film & it’s quite reassuring that many great films are still being made & shown today in 35mm.
A bit harder to experience at most theaters however.

I certainly do hope that you will get your in demand- ‘Holga‘ I would love to see some resulting images from your working with it!

Can you remind us again of your first experience of the ICA & what you feel it is, as an artist, that kept on bringing you back there for your clippings?

RC: When I first moved to London, it was winter and I was broke & lonely.

I didn’t know a soul and didn’t have much to do so would spend most of my days just hanging around the ICA book shop.
One day, an eccentric character called Colin started chatting to me and it turned out he was the projectionist.

Shortly after that, I started hanging around the projection booth watching movies, drinking cups of tea & more from boredom than anything else- began gathering up bits & pieces from the trash can & making little collages out of them.

Eventually I realized they didn’t need me to ‘make’ art out of them.

They were glorious little found objects in their own right so I just started saving them & filing them away.


AV: I can identify with “broke & lonely” in a move!

But ah….. You started to attend to a creative focus, a focus with a co- conspirator!
Books, films & Tea!
& then over time, you started to master your- found object.

I love it when I have phases of experimenting with found object.

Do you know what film “All I’ve got are my dreams and you’ve made me blue.” is from?
It’s such a powerful image, as one is viewing this subtitle- below both beaming cobalt blue Tv screens! What a great message. It has an unusual incandescent beauty, visually- as well.
Ahhh Television.


RC: I wish I knew!
I love that image too.
I have no idea, though.
In a way, that is something I quite love. I have all these lovely little ‘scenes’ yet have no idea at all of the ‘greater story’ which they are telling.

AV: I also want to know what film “those senseless & ruthless killers” is from!
Amazing- I love it, what is this film!? I wish we could find out.
Do you remember when you found this clipping?

RC: Yes, I love that too!

I think that was the first one I had printed.

I found the image so striking & the words so sharp & direct.
Again, absolutely no idea where it came from.
The ICA was extraordinary in the range of movies they showed.

Many were so obscure.

At the time, I was just a collector of scraps from a trash can. I never thought to ask about the provenance of any of these things.


AV: Your first ‘Cine’ print! Wow..

Film is so prevalent globally, in all cultures, in the arts, utterly profound the expansiveness of visual media & documentation. It’s ironic- yet completely beautiful, the anonymity of many of your works in ‘Cine’.

Really does something magnificent to my frame of mind!

My mother Monica, who is quite a talent in visual arts, has a vintage Cigarette Card collection that my grandmother Lilly had as a young girl.
Dorothy & Lillian Gish, & other stars of silent & ‘talkie’ films.
Whenever I’ve looked through them, I’ve often wondered, if all those involved in the birth of cinema, pondered upon- how expansive & influential, culturally, socially, politically &- economically, it could become. If only they knew.

Do you meditate on the histories of the pieces you find?

&, do your observations in thinking of the place, time & creation of each film, ever find itself as part of your inspiration & what results?


RC: Because I only find sections of film -usually very obscure films- I have no idea of the narrative so, yes, I immediately wonder about the context of these pictures.

Is the male figure here the lead or just an anonymous extra?

Where in the story does this picture belong?

Is the story cruel or funny or serious or sad?

I never know and that is part of the allure.

The ones that touch a nerve with me are the ones with subtitles: a child reading a note that says ‘if you are threatened, release these pigeons‘ is very poignant to me, as well as a hand calculating the cost of death: ‘coffin boards, 2.15 roubles’.

I also like the pensive Chinese woman subtitled ‘Women should marry, shouldn’t they?’


AV: I love ‘coffin boards, 2.15 roubles’ & ‘Women should marry, shouldn’t they?’ they are visually beautiful, of course.

Yet, they also remind me of what has been mulling in my head lately, about control & lack.

These images meet my sense of understanding our complicity in control & lack.

They definitely make a philosophical display out of my thoughts on the subject- in such a raw &/or compelling way.
Control & lack of it, control alloted through rituals, the buying of the coffin board, certainly cannot be an easy thing to do.
& it is as well very ritualistic behavior, not just among us, but even Elephants, they have ritualistic displays & behaviors, they lovingly, bury their dead.

& ‘Women should marry’ confronts similar human issues, of control & lack.
For obvious reasons &, she is in despair, somehow alienated by her own feelings.

I also really like your ‘Cine’ piece that states simply- ‘ART ‘ it’s unique & some how empowered for being a personalized representation of such a universal term for creativity.
Did you find ‘ART’ with what could be either Korean or Chinese layered atop it, as we see it?
Or did you add the elements of Chinese or Korean?

RC: The ‘ART’ image was cropped from ‘START’, a standard ‘tag’ on most reels of film.
I cropped it to ‘ART’ just to make it a bit more interesting.
The overlays of random bits of text are what really interested me about it. I didn’t add anything to it.
This image was cropped but, like all the others, they are printed exactly as I found them.


AV: I find it amazing & important to wonder in your ‘Cine’ works Robin.

If one wishes, one can follow the incentive to explore, the why’s & how’s of our participation & perceptions through the works.

The impetus to challenge our own illusions. The drive to act.

This, I believe is the basis for all great art. Is it not? It is, for me..
To thrive just enough within representation- to find ones self compelled to nourish & discover experience.
&, this is how these slips of film were conceived of & born.

I love ‘if you are threatened, release these pigeons’!! & this is a perfect- example, especially in where I placed it in our last conversation!

Have you ever cleaned a dusty clipping? Reworked, redeveloped, or created a series around a single film clipping?

RC: No, I try and let the images stand for themselves & not play or interfere with them too much.
I feel there’s precious little I can add to the beauty and mystery they have intrinsically.

I occasionally project textures or typography against my own work but if a clipping is a still from a movie, I just keep it as that- not even cleaning it as even the tape and debris on them is often as interesting as the picture itself.

AV: I do love the quality of the scratches, tape & debris, very much.
Touched by time & again a sense of an inconceivable life lived before having been found by you.

The ‘house on fire’ work reminds me of Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Mirror‘.
Again, I wish I knew what film this is from!


RC: I don’t know that one! As much as I love cinema, I’m really terribly uneducated about so many great ones.

AV: You live & create among film nonetheless.
Their endless reminders, deeper truths, echo in your works.

In making ‘Cine’ is your artistic or creative process different in any way from your other series or works?

RC: That is such a good question because, in many ways, the process is the same.

It’s about luck.
The ‘Cine’ series is only as good as the fragments I happen to find.
My own work is only as good as what I happen to come up with that day.
I don’t know whether I’m passive or lazy but I can’t seem to make anything happen artistically.
I can’t create something out of nothing in the way most artists do.
If I see a good picture I’ll take it in the way I’ll pick up a good ‘found image’ if it presents itself to me but I can’t come up with goods on my own.

I admire artists who get up every day & make something. I get up every day & wait for something to present itself to me!

For me, collecting found images & taking my own pictures feels very much like the same process & I love them equally.

Even though I can technically only claim authorship of my own stuff, I do feel I ‘own’ these found images as well.

AV: I understand very well what you mean in being inspired by found object as visual stimuli & the implementation of the material- of the object itself.

& Luck! Luck may not exist on most planes of existence but it sure does in the arts.

I as well appreciate those who “create something out of nothing”, it’s no easy feat, especially when one finds oneself not able to tap into a particularly empowered phase of creativity.

It is ideal in many ways to apply ones creativity to a found object. It’s life, mystery.
I too feel & know that you ‘own’ your found imagery, & the resulting works are yours.
Most definitely.
You give them new life.
A new memory.


RC: Well, it’s obvious I did not film these scenes myself so I have no pretense of ownership but, similarly, I love them too much as they are to manipulate them into being something else I can legally call ‘my work’.

I just see it like picking up driftwood on the beach. I saw it. I loved it.
No one else seemed to want it so I took it home.
Maybe the copyright issue will come up one day.
It will be an interesting discussion if it ever does.

AV: Copyright! Yes it would be interesting, at least we may garner the origin of a film or two!
I doubt this happening, which is interesting in & of itself.
Perhaps individuals who participated in these films may come forward, this would be especially fascinating.

Do your ‘Cine’ pieces amazingly decompose over time, as your other works do?

RC: No. The cinema pieces are very stable as they aren’t subjected to the bleach and chemicals I use on my own work.

AV: Is there any particular reason for this choice?

RC: I bleach and manipulate my own pictures to get a certain effect.

These found cine pieces already have that effect by nature of their age, so nothing I do could improve upon the quality they have already.

AV: Have you befriended any projectionists over the past 15 years?

RC: No. Introduce me to someone, please!

AV: I shall work on it straight away.
As I wish to continue to see in my lifetime more of your ‘Cine’ evolution..

In the past, have you ever asked a projectionist to keep clippings for you to sort through & have they?

RC: Colin at the ICA used to save the odd thing for me but I’ve never known another projectionist well enough to dare ask.
I wish I’d been more courageous over the years and asked more people but it always seemed an intrusion as well as an awkward favor to ask.

AV: Ask!! Please… Not an intrusion! No no no no.

Why do you think you choose the particular clippings you have chosen?


RC: Oh, I think they have a certain mystery about them.
They are parts of an interesting ‘greater narrative’.
Also, apart from anything else, they just seem well composed ‘still’ photographs and stand on their own.

AV: In some senses an endless narrative, mysterious, yes.
Would you ever be interested in traveling to find clippings in still operating film cinemas world wide?

RC: Oh yes.
What a dream journey that would be. I’m sure in the less technologically advanced parts of the world, rusty reels of 16mm and 35mm are still the norm.

AV: Yes!
I imagine you making a return to India where you were born, what incredible gems await there, they are some of the greatest fans of cinema in the entire world.

RC: Oh yeah.
I’m not really drawn to Bollywood but I really appreciate India’s love of cinema & how integral it is to their way of life, their collective dream of romance & happy endings.
The cinemas & projection booths, especially away from the cities, must be amazing gathering places.
My memory of cinemas in India was that they were air conditioned & that, in itself, was a reason to feel excited.

AV: Cinema is an entire world on it’s own in India, yes.

I need to learn more of their cinema, it’s vast & has quite a history & much variety.

Bollywood averages 1000 films a year, twice the output than that of Hollywood.

Most definitely their theaters must be the ultimate in gathering clippings!!!

Air conditioning it’s glacial cool, yes, especially when living in such heat.

So much incredible use of color & imagery they have. I love it.
I am very into looking at & admiring how they represent their Hindu deities.
I enjoy reading about them as well, the stories are amazing.
Shiva, Parvati, Kali, Ganesh, Vishnu & Vayu &- my favorite??
The one that I maintained I was, as a child?? Hanuman, the monkey god, I ran around in my Indonesian Hanuman mask for so long it lost it’s jaw!
I am, Hanuman Robin. Don’t doubt it. Hah…

I think you would do absolute wonders with Indian Film / Bollywood clippings!


RC: To be honest, I’m more drawn to the more melancholy, mysterious cinematic images whereas what I know of Bollywood productions seems to be the very opposite: bright & clear & deliberately superficial.
Having said that, all I’ve seen of Bollywood are their cheesy musicals.
I know there is a lot of very serious Indian cinema around but I’ve never investigated it.

Indian culture is so fascinating & spiritual that it seems a contradiction (to my ‘Western’ mind at least) that Bollywood’s major export are these predictable romantic fantasies.

I love the idea of a child running around with a mask for so long it broke its jaw!
That’s a great visual image!

AV: I understand & appreciate why people like musicals, but I don’t like them very much, I suppose we have been attempting a new take on ‘musicals’ such as the film ‘Once‘ which I enjoyed.

But I must agree I could not imagine you making works from Bollywood musicals.
& I as well have a preference for how you so fittingly described “the more melancholy, mysterious cinematic images “, yes.

Absolutely everyone must visit India once in their life. We’ve got stories don’t we.

&, thank you. I sure loved that mask, I’ll risk making a fool out of myself & share the fact that I basically lived in it, my mother never complained. In fact she was recently in Thailand & tried her best to find me a replacement. They were not to be had, but she kindly & endearingly got me a puppet & I love puppets.

Has the ICA already made the switch to digital? & are you still able to find clippings there?

RC: To be honest, I haven’t pursued it.
I’ve been so busy with my own work and my existing library of images, I haven’t even scouted for new stuff.
In a way, I almost dread going back to the ICA booth as I’m sure, 20 years on, it will not be the same place.

AV: You are so delightfully honest & interesting, it’s so easy to empathize with you.
You have a vivid & unique, emotional & mental life for an artist, comes through in the work.
I am sure most of us would agree there are places we just care not, to return, to.
Gets back to our talking about ‘nostalgia’ as well.

New booths for Robin!

Is there anything else you can tell us about the possible conjunction of Whitecross & the ICA for your ‘Cine’ show?


RC: Can’t really say now, other than the Whitecross is committed & we’re hoping to include the ICA in any way they wish to be included.

AV: Are there any specific clippings that you would love to get your hands on to work with?

RC: Actually no. I like the randomness of finding an image and having no idea at all from where it came.
I have bits and pieces from more famous films that I know and like but they are less interesting to me because there is no mystery around them. I know the story.

AV: I understand why you prefer finding random images. &, who really knows the full story on anything- any ways?!
Doubt it, this bias is just not rational.
Reaching for that which we have not learned of yet, in both the familiar & unfamiliar, is a good thing.
& it is mystery, which is a lure, triggering our growth, hopefully, with consistent evolution.

The most ‘sense’ we get is with what little parts of our stories, in this mystery of life, that we actually master, I suppose, unearthing truth, as well as allowing for room to grow.

There is so much philosophy behind your works, Robin.

What is your philosophy? Several, I think-.


RC: I’m not sure about my philosophy.

Just when I think I have one, something usually happens which makes me reconsider it.

My problem is that I haven’t found one that’s hurt proof yet.
One thing I’ve learned as a parent is that there really isn’t any one ‘way’ that gets you through every situation.

Lao- Tsu is not going to help me pay my mortgage.

Schopenhauer may say the world is not a rational place but is that going to cure my son or stop some random act of violence against him?

Buddhism makes sense to me intellectually but, so far, it hasn’t made me feel any happier or content inside.

‘Live. Love. Learn’ is pretty vague but, for me, that’s as close as I get to a philosophy.

Like the person waiting for the movie to begin, I wait for an epiphany!


AV: I appreciate & understand your inspiring, honest bluntness & empathize.
I agree with ‘Live. Love. Learn.’, yes. Probably why- your work is so approachable.
Schopenhauer I have a love hate for, hypocrite– was he not?
But I do read, have read Heidegger. What a beast.

Now, Chicago’s Martha Craven Nussbaum, she has her share of critics, but, she’s just great.

There is no hurt proof philosophy, yes, especially- in regards to ethics. We cry deceit. Ha ha?

There are many inclusive realities behind many a philosophers thinking which has been written about often, yes, especially Heidegger, but not- particularly often discussed & explored & why not?
Perhaps we are in denial, or find this a bore.
It is this bluntness that should appreciate in all communications & this bluntness is not cynicism, hardly!!
It’s a way, to work & comprehend our selves, world & universe, humanity & each other, our mysteries. An efficient bluntness, with powerful, useful & unique results.

Nothing is impossible. We are born into impossibilities, thus, anything is possible & I register deeply a sense of understanding the mechanics of possibility in your work.
Epiphanies & when they arrive. Scene after scene, after scene.
The metamorphosing roles!
&, as my old antique writing desk, a discovery much like your clippings, which I found abandoned & bathed into new life.

The powerful relationship your work has, to memory. What do you think?


RC: Memory.
I’ve probably said it before & others have said it far better, but we’re all just jars of memory.

Everything that makes you ‘you’ & me ‘me’ is what we’ve collected, stored from the past & these experiences are what we project onto others & through which we filter the world.

Some people would hate an old desk for the same reasons you love it.
Maybe the signs of a previous life are not something they want & prefer something polished & new.

There’s probably a psychological reason for those preferences.

All I can say is that I like the concept of ‘rescue’–whether it’s an old desk or a strip of film.

It sounds sentimental but there is something very satisfying about breathing life into something that’s been discarded.
Maybe that urge comes from a feeling of being discarded ourselves & symbolically, we’re acting out something.
People take in stray cats, or feed pigeons.
We rescue abandoned furniture & discarded film strips.
I’d say we’re all reading from the same page.


AV: Yes.
Thank you, we are filters, yes.
My desk yes! I especially agree with “Maybe the signs of a previous life are not something they want & prefer something polished & new.

There’s probably a psychological reason for those preferences.”

Yes. Several.

“Maybe that urge comes from a feeling of being discarded ourselves & symbolically, we’re acting out something. “

I like to ‘rescue’ & ‘breathe new life’ into things which have been discarded as well.
We are all reading from the same page!!!!!!!

Oh I feel so alive, right now.
All the beauty & vital observations that erupt out of creativity, chaos, & film.


RC: It’s a great pleasure speaking to someone who is so energized & exhilarated by art and creativity. I hope you never lose that. Your enthusiasm really means the world to me. It helps fight off those self-critical demons. Thanks.

AV: Your enthusiasm means the world to me as well, my honor.

Thank you Robin, for great inspiration, mutual warding off of demons & for this incredible conversation- & experience of ‘Cine’.

More of Robin’s ‘Cine’ works can be seen at his site, blog, & at Whitecross Gallery.

Robin Cracknell was interviewed for ART VOLUME ONE,
by, Chicago artist & writer, Amy M Denes.

Science Projects Volume III:The Photography & Work of Samantha West.


A Conversation with Samantha West.
Samantha West

AV: Where were you born & raised?

SW: I was born & raised in the concrete jungle of New York City.

It is quite a magical place to grow up as a child.

I have memories of swinging high into the sky in the playground, going to see the ballet, puppet shows outside of Lincoln Center, & carousel rides in Central Park.

The smell of the Natural History Museum is still the same now as it was twenty years ago.

As wee children, my brother & I were constantly searching for the “sheep” in Sheep’s Meadow whilst gripping grape and orange sodas…

Haven’t found them yet…

AV: Very lovely memories & imagery Sam, you must be a very loved daughter.

Wow! The smell of the Natural History Museum! Yes!

I too, have these olfactory experiences where the insides of certain buildings have a very distinct & memorable odor.

All of us I am sure have these ‘odor memories‘..

I have distinct memories of temples in Thailand & cathedrals in Europe ingrained in my mind- & on certain days, I swear I can smell the insides of these old temples & cathedrals in the wind, in my fresh linens, or when opening an old book.

SW: Smells are just so powerful, yes. Just today I was sitting on a crammed bus going downtown when a woman came on & sat in front of me.

The perfume she was wearing took me back to my younger days at warp speed.

I wish I could catalog it properly and remember why it was so familiar, but sometimes the sensation itself is enough.

I also like how my museum memory, triggered your memories of cathedrals and temples.

Museums, cathedrals and temples are almost all ‘on’ in the same way, for me. Beautiful sacred structures & a place of worship in one way or another, whether it be art or concepts of ‘God’.

AV: An olofactory catalog yes!!! A book, record, of scents.. Sheep’s Meadow in Central park has quite a history!! I had no idea! They used to keep sheep there in a building that is now part of Tavern on The Green….

I am giggling as I imagine you & your brother as little children with soda’s in tow looking for the sheep

SW: NYC does have such a brilliant history; wild, urban, & urbane.

AV: When did you first pick up a camera?

SW: A couple of years ago my Mum found the first ever photograph I took when I was about two years old.

It was of my parents’ legs, but damn it- those legs were centered & even.

AV: At two!! I cannot imagine anything more charming than you at 2, snapping away.

I would love to see the photograph of your parents’ legs! &, do you still posses all your photographs taken when tiny?

Samantha West

SW: I do have them. All my photographs are packed in boxes and tucked away in Connecticut.

Going through old photos is a strange sensation. I recently threw many photographs away from my teenage years. Sometimes it is a wonderful way to cleanse if that makes any sense…

AV: Yes, I understand, moving on from elements of our past, that we have grown out of, important to do every now & then, transformation, process & learning.

What was your early school experience of photography?

SW: I feel so blessed to have grown up having the support of all my art teachers, at my school.

I spent 13 years at Chapin, an all girls school on the Upper East Side.

I wasn’t the most brilliant scientist or mathematician, but I could do a mean portrait in pencil.

I rediscovered photography in 7th grade & once again, began to fall in love with the medium.

The darkroom was a safe place and soothing.

It allowed me to be alone, I could stay late after school working, the room was pungent with chemical odors, but virtually noiseless…

I always found it to be a haven.

AV: You have such a fluid & warm way of expressing your experiences, I really love how calm & observant you are in your self expression & your creative relationships with others.

I think you were becoming conscious of & in touch with your organic prowess as a young photographer.

Obviously you have excellent spatial skills!!

You can do a mean portrait!! Oh yes, my- my- my….. Indelibly your- eye, Sam.

I’ve seen plenty of Photography, or perhaps I’ve not seen enough, It’s next to impossible, for me to compare your eye.

As far as uniqueness & quality of- work, Annie Liebowitz, or Arbus, who I love- come to mind.

I want to experience a dark room! More dark room stories!

What was it like at Chapin, an all girl’s school?

SW: It was immense & incredibly bizarre. Really. I had no problem going to a single sex school.

I wore a uniform every day for 13 years. I think in many ways I still wear a uniform! The small classes developed some beautiful friendships.

The school was incredibly demanding & tough, & the hours working were bloody harsh. It was all well worth it though as I look back on it now. Particularly when I went to university, I realized how great of an education I received there.

I would never change it. Of course, after many years away, you tend to focus on the positive & forget the stress, sadness, pressure & insane work load, but such is life, no?!

AV: Yes, we do, must- evolve..

Do you have any other photographers, or artists in your family?

SW: Both my mum & dad are incredibly talented.

They are so visual- creatively, that I cannot help but be influenced by them. My father is an architect & landscape designer.

He is a master at both pen & watercolor sketches.

My mum is also wonderfully talented, but not only with paper or canvas.

She used to sew us costumes and clothes, whatever our heart desired. She always encouraged imagination & individuality.

AV: I share some things in common with you- with having creative parents!

I would love- to see the work of your father & mother.

It’s obvious you can take a photo of anyone, do you think you have a ‘type’ elements you look for in a sitter or model?

SW: If anything, my ‘type’ is women.

SW water wow

They inspire me more than anything else, but it is also because I feel instantly comfortable shooting the female face & form.

Put me in front of a handsome boy-I get nervous & sweaty palmed, but that challenge is also so much fun.

Regardless, I will always prefer to shoot real people rather professional models.

I suppose that is why I haven’t really done that much fashion.

I find it hard to relate to these stick thin, mind-blowing beautiful women.

I don’t see myself in them.

I don’t see many people in them, period.

They are not true to life.

On one hand it is amazing to photograph someone who knows what to do in front of the camera, but I prefer a little discomfort, some mistakes on my part and theirs (the sitter’s).

I believe when that starts to happen, you can see something genuine come across in an image.


AV: You have such ability at capturing essence, yes!

You captivate & bring so much power & sensuality to the female form!

It is also interesting to note, that I find it rather hard to, how can I put it- ‘objectify‘ your sitters, I get reverent & exploratory as to who the subject is.

The lives they live.

It’s a refreshing & a new invitation to depth, personality & character.

Yes, it is funny how no matter how capable we are of observing tensions with the opposite sex, that sometimes this happens!

You face the challenge of photographing males very well Sam.

& your methods, ‘true to life’ symbiosis, as well as understandably tense moments of ‘discomfort’ & ‘mistakes’ achieves something genuine & magnetic.


I am delighted at your preference to shoot real people, this is where our gravity lays, in lives lived away from one-dimensional representations.

I as well do not see myself in a six foot 90 pound female.

Nor do I want to, I think because I just love to be strong.

We lack representations of strong women & if there would ever be an ideal for anyone to approach, for me it is- a strong woman.

I’d also have to agree with your preference because I think that the beauty of the everyday, & with all the fascinating people I pass, the remarkable & complex, lays in them. Not in an individual who works- as a representation of corporate profit margins, outsourcing & manipulation of the public at large. Corporate images are simply- too limited!

& of course ‘Style’ is important, it has always been important, whether you are Senegalese or Chinese or Maori.

Style is self expression, it is personal, cultural, creative, particular to each individual & I don’t think something that can be bought or purchased.

Why we have allowed fashion to turn into an overwhelming, yet ironically limiting beast, which has monopolized our social & cultural values & vocabulary, upsets me.

Basically, its become a prolonged mass anathema of ones right to manifest & express ones identity-mental & emotional presence. &, this makes ‘dressing’ such a bore, crutch & prison sometimes.

Even ‘Goth’ people have to pay a hefty sum for the status that comes with their particular wardrobing, which in the end is not particularly different from those who invest a great deal in achieving a ‘Ralph Lauren’ look. They are equally commodifying & both RL & Goth clothes, are made in China.

But these contradictions & questions also make it a prime time to deviate from all popular notions of dress. Yes?
This is why I mostly wear used ethnic clothing, Asian, African, Mexican, Czech, Indian, Senegalese, Abaya Caftans & thrift, it’s my way of addressing my sense of creative self & identity in our world..

We seem to be making some progress in observing the far reaching & negative impacts of our obsessions with beauty, with the ‘Red’ campaign, Patagonia & these half naked ‘Dove’ spokes models, organic products, etc…

But, if one really wants to think of free trade & sustainability as a reality & serious issue facing our world, I think we truly need to be more aware of & continue to change our concepts, values & markets of what ‘Fashion’, ‘Style’ & ‘Beauty’ is.

&, what the ‘material’- means.

What do you think?

SW: I agree with much of what you said.

I must say that I really adore fashion.

I grew up reading Vogue, it gives me great pleasure to sit in a magazine shop & flip through publications. There really is a lot of art & beauty to much of fashion photography these days, but in the end, it just doesn’t turn me on in the same way that these real beauties around me do, not yet at least!

& honestly, if I had the body to wear these clothes I would most likely be much more involved and even obsessed with fashion and models, but growing up bigger & taller than the rest of womankind forever changed me.

All those Dove Campaigns or even the “greening” of beauty and fashion is complete bullshit in my eyes. On the surface it is positive, but do some research into those companies & they are all owned by major brands who tell you to love yourself, but then sell another product to help you “lose weight fast” etc….

It is a marketing scam, it is political.

At 25, I am much happier with myself then when I was a girl, but it is a constant struggle, no?

That is why it is so important to me that those that I photograph feel handsome or beautiful. I want them to feel special & amazing & ravishing, because it is- how I see them. It really, is.

I appreciate the fact that you see sensuality & power, it is what I aim for. I want to change the perception that our generation has these days that nudity equals porn/sex/fucking.

My goal is not a political one, rather, I want to reinvent & rejuvenate the art & aesthetics that have inspired me. Variety is key in life!

silver silver

AV: Yes, & what profound observations Sam! I agree with your observations!! Variety is a momentous & necessary, wonderfully changing & rational ideal. Let’s not get ahead of or limit ourselves when learning about & representing the human body, or it’s psyche, yes. Enough!

What cameras do you use & why?

SW: My camera choices are purely dictated by my finances at the moment.

I shoot with a Canon 20D, which I have had for about nine months.

Its lovely and amazing.

I think I know how to take a great picture, but I know nothing about cameras and the ‘techie’ aspect of digital photography.

A little bit of ignorance and naiveté never hurt anyone’s art, but I do feel like it is my responsibility these days to do a bit more research and actually know what I am doing. Ha!

AV: You take a great- picture!!! &, I think at this point you are one with any camera you use!

I as well get these epiphanies that I need to delve deeper into certain mediums, research.

You have some of the best digital I’ve seen, you achieve the depth of film-, your subjects are in motion, there is great presence in your subjects.

AV: Do you prefer film or digital?

SW: Film is beautiful & magic.

The quality of digital can’t begin to compare unless you have thousands upon thousands of dollars to spend on a camera

With film, I loved the process of waiting and seeing what you had taken on the roll.

Its like going on a date with a stranger, you don’t know what you are going to get until you arrive and start talking.

Digital has helped me hone in on my own specific style.

It basically allowed me to take unlimited amounts of photographs without fearing the final bill of developing costs.

I love the immediacy of it all.

More than anything, I love being able to go home, upload onto my computer & spending hours editing right away…

AV: So you prefer Film, but have grown & developed with the advantages of both Film & Digital?

&, In the future, which do you think you would prefer for the majority of your photography work?

SW: No, I don’t prefer film, I really really love digital, but I would love to delve back into film again.

I love them equally. Anything that takes a photograph I love! I would love to be able to purchase some old Polaroid cameras, buy loads of film & just shoot, I would love to experiment with medium format photography.

But more and more, I just adore digital. It is just so much fun.

&, I must say, some of the greatest compliments I have received are those asking what film I shoot with. That is a real honor. I love the dimension and depth film gives, and if I am somewhat able to replicate that with digital, I am more than pleased!

sam sam night

AV: I am not surprised that you are asked what film you shoot with, by all appearances they seem shot with film.

Has being a born & raised New Yorker, as well as living in NYC influenced your eye?

SW: It has yes.

I used to say it was the city’s vibrancy & chaos that influenced me, but now I realize that it has more to do with the fact that it allows me to have a sense of anonymity.

You can day dream on the bus or subway.

You can stare at people & find the most interesting characters.

There are so many stories going on around you, you can’t help but have them seep into your psyche

AV: Wow that is pure poetry, right there, Sam. I am transported to NYC, which I have yet to visit..

I know this might sound corny but Gershwin’s Blue Rhapsody completely infiltrated my head, actually one of my most favorite songs. Psyche……….. !

SW: I need to download that song!

The city is an agoraphobics dream in many ways. You can hide in your own home & the world you have created & then jump into an ocean of people whenever you feel brave enough…

AV: Wow…… Wonderful. I imagine I’d pull a Houdini in NYC! I can vanish, you can vanish, it is amazingly populated like this. Yes?!

You have great taste in music & have worked with some incredible musicians.

What music do you follow? &, does music play a big role in your life?

SW: CocoRosie I adore.

Bianca & Sierra were the first people I shot professionally.

They took a chance with me & I am eternally grateful for that.

They are incredibly strange and beautiful souls, & it is such a pleasure to photograph them every time I do.

I was terrified to photograph them, but it was one of those situations were through the awkwardness there was a sense of ease and a meeting of minds, which I think resulted in some wonderful images.

I have also shot Sierra & Bianca Casady individually.

Nico Muhly is a great friend of mine & a former neighbor.

He is an amazing young talented composer who is garnering much acclaim & a great supporter of mine.

I also recently shot a New York band called Aloke.

They are four incredibly talented men & terribly handsome to boot. They were so much fun to shoot. I really believe that if you have a connection you can’t help but create something beautiful.

I like to think I have damn good taste in music!

I just went through my music for you… Being asked what you listen to is one of the worst and hardest questions ever, but I will try to attack it.

I heart Dolly Parton & want to meet her so very much. The Beatles have my soul forever, of course CocoRosie makes me cry, Billie Holiday is for singing along to anytime of day, Moon Dog is absolutely brilliant and so ahead of his time, James Brown makes me shake my bum, Smog/Bill Callahan makes me want to be in love (I will fall for any man who can sing like him).

I just discovered Dead Heart Bloom. His voice & guitar are beautiful, beautiful, & you can download both of his albums for free!

Also, my friend Little Million is a gem- a shout out to him! &, I can’t forget Brian Eno, Bowie, The Clash & Serge Gainsbourg… Oh oh I feel guilty leaving out so many!!!!


AV: You really mix it up & know your music! HAH! Greatness. Sierra & Bianca of CocoRosie, are amazing & you capture them beautifully, their music, color, creativity & lyricism.

Your working with musicians does not surprise me in the least, photography, music & the arts go hand in hand.

Of course you are in demand, because you are innately gifted with translating song to image & vice versa. I want to see you make portraits of David Byrne, my hero, yup Mr Byrne. Thinking of how great that would be!

SW: Oh my gosh, I would love to! I adore him & I adore The Talking Heads. My parents have a great story of going to a dinner party in the 70’s and hearing the Talking Heads practicing through the wall in the next room.

He seems like such a fascinating man. I really started to appreciate him after I heard an interview he did on NPR’s Studio 360. I believe he was talking about his various projects including a book he did on chairs. He seems completely quirky and intelligent & possesses a great sense of humor. So the answer is, yes.

AV: I’d love to see you make a portrait of him!! & one of Thom Yorke too!!

Who are your greatest influences & who’s work do you admire the most & why?

SW: I couldn’t even begin to give you a list.

Every day I will go on Google images & search words of phrases that I come up with, & those can result in some incredible pictures.

If I see a photograph that I love, whether it be in a magazine, at a museum or in a book, I try to write down the artist & look them up later.

I have thousands of images I have collected over the past two years that are my inspiration.

But here are a few things that I adore -vintage porn & nudes.

Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers movies.

Errol Flynn (my first crush), old, eccentric, & nutty people (most of whom are my parent’s friends), cooking, horses & unicorns, mermaids, fairy tale illustrations from the victorian era, hindu deities, the stories of well traveled friends.

I love Guy Bourdin, John Singer Sargent, Todd Hido, Jeremy Lipking, Weegee, Bruce Davidson, William Klein,

Tamara Di Lempicka, Rothko & Irving Penn.

Samantha West

AV: Wow, you really have a healthy sense of variety, history, color & vitality in your influences.

I love some extraordinary & slightly nutty people as well!! Some of my greatest friends are wonderfully balanced creative eccentrics.

Bourdin is nicely adult & wonderfully macabre, but in a very fun murder mystery ‘David Lynch‘ way. Weegee!!! I never- heard of!!! Oh thanks Sam.

He’s my favorite of your favorite photographers.

I am certain I must have seen his images- but now I shall dive into all his works.

I love Eikoh Hosoe– his work with the infamous master of Butoh, Kazuo Ohno– also Tatsumi Hijikata is an absolute anomaly!

Rhizome Lee, is a pretty damned good, Butoh Dancer.

Eikoh’s photos of Butoh dancing & Ohno transport me to places that make a great deal- of sense to me.

Eadweard Muybridge, I’ve always loved.

SW: It is always so much fun to throw favorite artists back & forth between people.

It is really the best way to learn and grow!

Sharing pictures, names, inspirations, books, poetry.

It is often a better way of learning and expanding your mind than school!

AV: Yes!

Who- are the artists that “transport you to places that make sense to you”?

SW: Julia Margaret Cameron is one of them.

I immediately recognized myself in the faces of the women she photographed.

These sad and beautiful masculine/feminine faced women that don’t really seem to belong, or they are someplace else in their eyes and minds, someplace very far away.

It might sound rather morbid, but its true!

Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema is one of my favorites. I think the work that tends to transport me most is romantic and fantastical.

Frida Kahlo….

I love the Pre- Raphaelite movement – Dante Rosetti & John Edward Millais.

They are tragic & stunning, but never weak. They all seems fiercely intelligent & aware. There is a story in their eyes…

Samantha West

AV: Heroic, Sam!

I love Cameron’s work, yes- they are quite determined & aware, some of them distant, yes.

Who would you love to get to sit for you?!?

SW: Good lord, I was thinking about this the other night, & the first name that popped into my head was Oprah.

In all seriousness, I really don’t know.

That is a difficult difficult question and I feel like the answer will always change as I get older…

AV: If you made a portrait of Oprah, I am certain she would become accessible in a way never seen before.

I don’t watch TV, but I know she does do this amazing juggling act to support causes she believes in.

I respect how she handled the assaults which happened at one of her schools in Africa recently. She immediately confronted how serious it was & she was & is still is- under much scrutiny.

She is a very powerful woman, who makes intense efforts to be involved in & take responsibility for the power she has obtained. & she opens doors for many.

So let’s see it Ms. West!!!! Hello Oprah!!!

Sit for Sam West! I & many would love to see it!!

Bring the Big Apple to the Windy City & your face will beam in a new light- of worldliness with Sam’s eye!

SW: I actually don’t watch her show either, I don’t really watch TV, but I just adore her.

I really respect her. Again, I was trying to think who else I would like to shoot, but it is a difficult question. I do know that I would love to photograph you. You are on the top of my list with your mermaid hair….

AV: Hah!

Well, I tell you, if & when I get published- I’ll take you up on this very gracious offer.. A modest, but authentically penetrating B & W. Wow, I cannot even start to imagine…

I also dream of a Cracknell Portrait. That is too greedy..

He loves your work.

If I had each of you shoot me, my goodness, yes, please! Miraculous!

& TV watching is starting to rapidly go down.

Right when they invent those clunky Plasma TV’s ha ha ha.

Where is a place in the world that you have not been to yet, Sam, that you would love to shoot & why?

SW: I want to go to two places.

1. Iceland, because Faeries do exist there.

My heart is drawn to that country & I need to find out why.

2. India, because similar to Iceland there is something that seems so magic about the country & people.

I am sure I have a romanticized vision of both, but I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing…

Samantha West

AV: You have a sense of romance that is unique, appealing & approachable.

A rawness, enthusiasm, creativity & logic, that is real.

&, a purpose that brings so much talent together & an ethic that supplies us with a better world & view of it.

Iceland & India have the kinds of transformations that a heart & mind like yours hungers for & offers all, in great supply.

SW: You make me blush and smile all at once. I cannot wait to go to both of those places, but beggars can’t be choosers. If there is a plane that takes me out of the country in the near future, whatever the destination ends up being. I will be more than happy.

AV: I’d like to talk about Kicki- she is your best friend, as well your model. What an electric young woman! How did you meet her?? Her charisma, identity & fabulousness are such huge magnets for you- which you reveal to us.

wonderful kicki

SW: I met Krissy a long time ago, probably three or four years ago by now, maybe more… It was not until we both moved to Chinatown that we just clicked.

She and I were meant to be friends, that I know…

Long haired blond mermaids we are, although she doesn’t like getting her head underwater and I live for it…

We are in many ways very similar but also opposites.

I really respect her freedom and openness, her humor and intelligence.

She loves magic & spirits & faeiries the same way I do.

She looks at the stars & sun & moon, she thinks about nature & past lives & has a brilliant & open mind.

She has such a big heart & a beautiful combination of fear and fearlessness.

I really think she was the one who inspired me to start taking nudes.

To seek out those who want to share & expose themselves.


I really hope that she is pleased with the way I capture her, I think we are really honest with each other and that comes across in the images. I just want to do her justice.

Honestly, it might be our shared, creepy pizza addiction that keeps us together…. That & our naughty sense of humor..


AV: You are adventuresses, sisters, family! There is an innocence, strength & organicism to the body that we often ignore & abuse, but you allow us to see it again. The bond you describe, is the essence- of true friendship.

Your work with her is so new & profound, because- you are able to chime in to a willingness to unravel & share the tender beauty & inherent strength of human vulnerability.

Such images, are quite rare, Sam. It is an art & the results are great artworks.

Pizza!Ha ha ha.


AV: You have a show coming up at 222 Gallery? How exciting is that Sam!
Can you give us details?

SW: I am so so thrilled.

It is my first show & a solo one at that! I am so grateful, to Philip Otto and 222 Gallery for giving me this opportunity.

Putting one’s work out there in the public is so daunting.

There is a strange safety to posting online, whether it be on Flicker or my website, but to have it large- and hanging on a wall framed is another thing entirely!

The first show will be in LA opening March 7, 2008.

The show will be held at the Alife store at 451 North Fairfax Avenue, downtown LA.

The Los Angeles show- will consist of 5-6 large format photographs.

The images will be focused around the series of girls I have been shooting as of late. Strong, sensual, lively nudes!

The girls did it for me because, in my view LA is about sensuality, color.

&, the Philly show will be late summer or early fall, but I think it will be a bit more varied in terms of work.

I have yet to see the space, but I am super excited to!

I think it will come to me once I have a chance to view the layout. The larger gallery space will allow for loads more prints, so that is invigorating and overwhelming all at once, but baby steps, baby steps. I am taking it one day at a time.

I can barely believe that this show in Los Angeles is happening. It won’t be concrete to me until those prints are hanging on the wall- in front of my eyes.

Philip Otto is so lovely. He is a wonderful person to talk to, & really open to ideas. It is such a pleasure to spend time with someone who is constantly thinking & reinventing, someone who is innovative and excited about life.

The last time I saw him he took me out for Chocolate cake & a Cappuccino… Need I say more?!

AV: It will be an incredible show!!!

Yes, there is nothing like our friendships &- when we work with other artists.

When we know that we have achieved a true connect, consistency, mutual respect & curiosity, everyone involved grows & develops profoundly.

You both, have a great deal of experience working with other artists. It is incredibly inspiring to work with you both amidst all this possibility, talent, creativity & innovation.

In your work, you allow us to experience a certainty of depth, which allows us to openly experience our past, present & future, in such tangible ways Sam.

Your visual imagery asks us, to consider, discover, ourselves. All one can ask for from you at this point, is to make it, endless.


AV: &, lastly would you like to show in Chicago?

SW: Of course I would!

I want to hit up every major city in the entire universe!

AV: Thank you so much, for talking with us Samantha.

More of Samantha West’s work is at her website & at her online Flicker album.

Samantha West was interviewed for ART VOLUME ONE,

by, Chicago artist & writer Amy M Denes.

Science Projects Volume II:The Work & Life of Philip Harold Otto.


A Conversation with Philip Harold Otto.


AV: You were born, in a Mill town north of Seattle in Everett, Washington.

What was it like being raised there & what are your childhood memories?

PO: Brick Victorians in the mist.

Highways, cut through vast evergreen forests – occasional glimpses of rocky peaks.

Learning to read from road signs while in the back seat of my mother’s station wagon on long drives.

Visiting Tom Robbins Place in La Connor.

The construction of the Pilchuck Glass Studios out in the woods.

My brother’s older friends talking about Purple Bracket Fungus on tree trunks, during walks in the woods.

Only I knew it wasn’t Purple – they were just on acid, that’s all. . .

Staring up at the night sky through the top of an abandoned cinder cone, in a field of brick rubble that was once a paper factory – slightly stoned.

Wearing nothing but forties clothing and jeans from thrift shops.

Cutting my finger off while carving, and having my father sew it back on- in the kitchen.

Hiking from Mt. Rainier to the Canadian border on the Cascade Crest Trail with inadequate gear- because, I was inspired by Dharma Bums. .

AV: These memories are pure poetry- & I see their influence reflected in your diverse work, ruggedness, mystery, curiosity, vivid color schemes, exploration, family & love for the wilderness. And, Kerouac is greatness-.

Pretty amazing- that your father sewed your finger back on!!

Did anyone ever talk about the ‘Wobbly Massacre‘ of Everett- which you told me about?

PO: The Wobbly Massacre for me, was a brass plaque on an old brick building in the tiny downtown section of Everett –.

I cried.

AV: I would have cried as well, what a horror.

Your father was from Rudyard, Montana, and a Thoracic Surgeon, what is his history? And, what was it like to have a surgeon for a father, especially one that specializes in opening up the chest?

PO: Rudyard is a town of about 300 people on a good day.

It is in eastern Montana – the American Siberia.

Lots of Germans moved there thinking that they could own their own land, etc…

That’s us, Prussian peasants and mercenaries that wanted to be free!

My grandfather worked for The Great Northern Railroad, bought land, lost it in the dust bowl, went back to work for the railroad until he blew his brains out.

My father- James, worked hard to get into Columbia Medical school, and beyond – Seattle, was his dream.He also played classical piano –Chopin, a surgeon & great talented hands. . .


AV: No wonder you & your siblings- have such a balanced, reverent, realistic, exploratory view of & connection to nature..& In your work ethic, creativity. And, he was a classical pianist!!

How profound…..

I love Chopin..

I have a grandfather that committed suicide as well.

&, I see great influences in your work, of biology, science & definitely organicism-. Do you think that your father having been a surgeon & a classical pianist- has influenced your work, your process?

PO: I have talked to my sister Cathy about this quite a bit.

The creative process is actually the same as far as we can figure by comparing notes.

You have an idea – you see if you can work it out.

Enter, process.

I work in a multi – disciplinary manner, so, this makes good sense to me.

Take idea – translate it into the appropriate medium. All technique is there only to support this premise.

Something like that. . .

AV: Your work is, very multi- disciplinary, “All technique is there only to support this premise” yes..

And your mother Ruth, was from NYC & she was a nurse.

PO: She was able to get out into the world by being a nurse.

Today she would have become a doctor undoubtedly.

Then it was like – nurse, teacher, something. . .

She was also a very capable and prolific photographer and a very creative person – very much a teacher to her five children.

AV: I’d like to see more of Ruth’s photographs, I love the self portrait of her that she took in the mirror…


PO: There are more, the Mexican building, that whole series- was a collaboration with Ruth.

I am responsible for the damage to the negatives – a flood, happy accident in many ways.

Also the editing, cropping, processing, etc.

That sort of thing.

I have all of her slides – a vast life work from her world travels.

Endless, empty cities and landscapes – she was always up early, to get the shots before people would even show up.

AV: Again, with Ruth’s life & creativity- there must be some science & biology influence there, do you think so?

PO: I think art should not be self referential – it has to be about something: life.

Is that biology?

AV: Yes. It is all inclusive.

I’d love to hear the story about your mother & father, their walk from North Africa to Berlin, with Patton, what led them to take this incredible voyage?

PO: My parents walked from North Africa ( Morocco ) to Berlin– because, they were in a MASH unit with General Patton’s army.

My dad was a surgeon and the main health inspector as well – certifying everything from hygiene in the kitchens to the OR procedures.
I heard stories of my mother driving up Vesuvius as it erupted- while they passed through Sicily – she went up until the tires melted!
They were married in Nancy France as they passed through there – I have a sister of that name.
My mother, was in the first group sent into Hitler’s bunker to try to prevent his suicide – she was a tough cookie.

That is why they walked. They had some great stories!


AV: GASP! Incredible-life & love story, would make for a great book or film!! You are the youngest of five- children, now what was that like?

PO: You could watch the ones before you, run various experiments, and wonder about them.

My oldest brother was away at college most of my childhood it seemed.

He was a math prodigy identified by the government to help them get the edge in the space race.

He went to Cal Berkeley early, and traveled for the government a lot before that too.

Not a good childhood for him from my view – my take away: don’t be a genius!

Be regular people!

Anyway, he sent me the Metamorphosis when I was in sixth grade and I loved it – the dream logic of it, but I couldn’t get the point.

Jim explained it – before he was a bug they treated him like a bug.

Once he was a bug, they still treated him like a bug.

That made sense to me.

AV: Ha ha, “You could watch the ones before you, run various experiments, and wonder about them.” Funny…

Kafka’s Metamorphosis really got me feeling oddly pegged sometimes as well, many of us who have read it, of course.

Your oldest brother is a mathematics prodigy, following- is your sister who is a hand surgeon, then a brother who is an artist as well as a skier, & a sister who invented Heart Imaging Ultrasound.

PO: Jim lives in Chicago off in his own world.

Nancy is a hand surgeon in San Antonio.

Louis is the father of Alexandra who is a photographer, Ski Instructor & Model.

You got Cathy right – research MD at U of W, in Seattle.


AV: What is it like being in such a creative & wonderfully holistic family?

PO: It is similar to the Wes Anderson Film, The Royal Tenenbaums – education is all professional class people can give their kids – there is no inheritance.

OK, there is one oil well in eastern Montana – but that makes about $50 per month.

AV: Hah ha ha… That is so funny, the thought had crossed my mind, that you are somehow like the genuine- Royal Tenenbaum Family! I love the film.

The North Cascades in Seattle are absolutely stunning, you all must have had quite a relationship with the North Cascades, especially with all these photos of you all in the Mountains..

Lot’s of photos of amazing mountains, you all- have.

PO: I miss the North Cascades all the time – they are harsh,

unrelenting, and beautiful.

AV: What are some memories of this time in your life?

PO: Louis and Cathy took me everywhere.

They liked to let me drink wine and dance around the fire in my long

underwear like a maniac.

AV: Oh social & familial fires & bonfires must- make a return!

You lived in in Toulouse as a child? Tell us about that..?

PO: My parents helped a family in Toulouse during the war.

The Dubosts are a wonderful family – the father, headmaster at Lycee Haute

Eleves College Pierre Fermat, the mother so elegant, as only the French can

be – a boy, a girl.

I would hike by myself in the Pyrenees.

Later the girl, Anne, came to hike in the Cascades.

Endless meals at friend’s farms and estates. Ah!

AV: And, Beautiful living, breathing, timeless- mountains! Mountains!! Again….

When did you start training in Haida carving with Bill Holm?

PO: About fifth grade – his daughter was my French teacher too!

AV: Wow.

What brought about your interest in the Haida?

PO: Not just Haida – that was far away.

We lived near the Tulalip Reservation and there was a lot of the coast

carving culture around.

You first make your Adze.

Then, you start carving.

The museums in Seattle and Vancouver have great stuff.

You can’t help but be influenced.

My church as a Child, the Presbyterians, burned poles as Pagan Idols.

I had some real childhood anger and bitterness about this!

AV: Oh I would have been absolutely vitriolic.

Absolutely amazing.

I love Totems, all the wood carvings of that whole region- & The Haida artist Bill Reid. The Tlingit-.

I did not know about the Tulalip.

Did you ever learn to speak Haida or Tulalip? “Haw’ aa” is Thank you in Haida.

Tulalip or Lushootseed- is a beautiful language, sounds like song & soft rhythm.

PO: Sadly – no.

AV: Do you still have any carvings that you made from that time & do you

still make carvings?

PO: My brother in Seattle has some, my sister in San Antonio as well –I

don’t keep stuff.

AV: We want to see them Otto………….

( AVI would like to Thank the Otto family, for sending us these images. )



I think that your experiences with the Haida has influenced your current work, you think so?

PO: Absolutely – I work very hands on, and always need a connection to


AV: &, you use recycled wood in your designs.. Recycled wood people!

I can clearly see why you would be drawn to Franz Boas, and- the

Kwakiutl Indians, please tell me about your essay on Franz Boas and the


PO: He was doing that German tradition thing- of just cataloging everything for generations to come, but it lacked his personal insights which are, ultimately, essential.

So much of what he knew and experienced was lost in this way.

Still, bless him, it’s some cool shit!

Stanford at that time did admissions very personally, so I was pleasantly

surprised to have dinner with Dean Hargedon when I arrived in Palo Alto

and found out he knew the essay well!

AV: What were your experiences at Stanford like?

PO: I had very high expectations when I arrived.

I felt very isolated in high school and thought college would be so

wonderful, intellectual, inclusive – but I was still weird there too!

Hah! I’ve adjusted now, I’m OK, yes. . .

Academics were tough but I found that if there was an essay, I could get an A.

By the end of my sophomore year I had really done all the requirements for

graduation and I couldn’t imagine what to take!

So, I went to the San Francisco Art Institute to pursue my artwork more intensively.

I then discovered punk bands, became a singer, bass player, song writer, etc.

Stanford took me back at full credit for my senior year.

AV: What an evolution, now a musician as well! What Punk Bands?

PO: I was in the Seattle music scene that led up to the Grunge years.

I was in the Punk band Raw Meat in the SF scene- circa 78, 79.

Then, the post punk band, Rapid -I, Seattle scene circa 80, 81 & we were mentioned in the book, Loser: The Real Seattle Music Scene, by

Clark Humphrey…

Then- was an experiment in live dub Steddi-5, Seattle

scene circa 82- also mentioned in ‘Loser’.

AV: ‘Bash my Head’ & ‘Slogans’ from Raw Meat, are great!!

&, I never heard of the book, I will look into it, Grunge– come back…..

Then- you pursued studies in Cultural Anthropology and Studio Art &

Painting! What was this period of your life like, what were you discovering

& what questions were you asking?

PO: I went ‘Native’.

Why just study culture when you can mess with it?

Punk bands, my artwork, and finally spaces- were / are my vehicles.

AV: I have an odd philosophy about space, as in what is a real space. You

beat me to it, I just write and think about it, you materialize it.

What are your philosophies of space??

PO: To create a memorable event / experience – there are too many neutral

spaces around.

Create difference. . .

AV: What was the social & cultural climate like through your eyes- in Palo

Alto California at the time?

PO: Palo Alto was nothingness, Stanford is known lovingly as the farm –

that is appropriate. It connects easily by train to San Francisco.


AV: You say about this time-“I spent my junior year at the San Francisco art institute while Chris Burden was locked in a locker there.” Ha ha ha, wow… I like Burden, did you see his ‘Shoot’?

PO: I’m aware of it. Didn’t see it, no.

AV: It seems that you are very open & fascinated with mortality, I am too. Are you..?

PO: I’m very aware of mortality.

I have this horrible sense that I will die one day!

Is it true?

Seriously, I do feel that way and worry that I will run out of time to get done

all the things that I would like to do.

I find the time limit very daunting, I guess.

AV: One lifetime is not enough I say, I am in agreement.

Quite a way to warp perception, the death question.

Your ‘Skull’ piece comes to mind in it’s vibrant scratchy cobalt blue, print lacing beneath.

PO: Just a doodle on a page from a book by Burroughs that I’ve kept. . .

I think he talks about the artist Philip Taaffe in Ghosts, maybe. I can’t exactly recall – but the page is not still in the book!

AV: Once you were finished at Stanford you went to Pacific Oaks of Pasadena & got your Master’s in Human Development.

What were some of your experiences at Pacific Oaks?

PO: Pacific Oaks was amazing.

I grew a great deal there.

I had a professor who would pile up her paper work and then see how quickly she could just get through it – like a race.

Point being, it held no interest for her, but admittedly it had to be done!

I thought this was a wonderful and somewhat humorous strategy.

Another professor, I had named Brown, was I believe Native American.

But, in teaching about diversity she one day told me, “Oh no, it’s German, you know- Braun”. . .

It made me think.

I love that she never went back to it or explained it.

How do I feel if she is Native American? How do I feel about her if she is


Both are plausible.

I think this is an especially big deal for Americans – who are we?

Oh, I have a German last name – but, wait, I really am not German at all, or

am I? A very big issue- identity I think.

Does this make sense? I think it’s complicated.


AV: Yes, I agree, we often ask- in every sense-who the hell are we?

Hmmmm, lot’s of answers & plausibilities for that one. The paper race pile- funny, hah, I’ve seen that happen before.

Then you taught in early childhood for five years, can you tell us about

this experience?

PO: In the middle eighties, I taught early education: a pre-school lab with

researchers and parent involvement.

I then, taught kindergarten.

I finally settled for the longest bit – three years, with second grade in a San Francisco prep school.

I love teaching and could happily stay there.

But, I wanted to do more with my artwork which involved a different

level of commitment at the time.

AV: I bet this prepared you quite well for fatherhood yes?

PO: Yes and no.

Kids tell you what they need and you try to listen well.

It lacks the formality of the teaching relationship in the best possible way!

AV: Soon after this experience, you worked at The Exploratorium in San

Francisco, in exhibit design- what was that like?

PO: The Exploratorium is great.

They didn’t allow too much specialization at that time, so, I built walls,

was trained as an electrician, worked with Brian Eno on an early

installation of his aural / visual environments, & I was Ned Kahn’s studio


That was the beginning period of the idea for my approach to architecture.

AV: You were trained as an electrician? Where did you go to do that? &, Eno…

Makes sense- you & Eno….

PO: I was trained at the museum – I wired Eno’s installation myself!

AV: Wow. I love Eno!! Can you tell us more about the installation you worked on with him?

PO: I was the kid that did the set up and ran the electrical – it was great to be

around as he worked – he sings!


What was it like being Ned Kahn‘s studio mate?

PO: He was Robert Oppenheimer’s assistant as a very young guy. Ned is

amazing as an artist and a person. His billboard covered in sequins– it

looks like a photo of the wind.

AV: Wow. He’s incredible, the billboard- does look just like a glittering gust of wind..

Nice to see the wind in his work, makes me think of what I see of

the wind on water, in the trees, flags, fields..

I’d like hear more about your experiences- as the Facilities Director and Affiliate Artist- when you were at The Headlands Center For the Arts in Sausalito-, during- the David Ireland, Ann Hamilton, Andres Serrano, Bruce Nauman, years.

What was it like having all these great artists around you, working with

them & how did it influence your work?

PO: I lived at the Headlands, I organized the renovation of abandoned

military buildings. I worked with my hero – David Ireland. What can I

say? This is when I had my first commissions to do commercial spaces.


AV: Then you Started The Otto design group in 1990, what was this like for you & what were your concepts & influences at the time, was sustainability important to you from the start?

PO: It was impossible.

It was fun.

I felt like I could do things. I felt like there are wonderful people in the world.

I had enough money to buy a used Volkswagen – or I could start a company!

So what is there- to stop me!

How could I do worse than non profit pay?

I then, proceeded to show how that can be done. . .

AV: I bet it must of been hard at first- !! It’s gut wrenching moments &- of

course moments of great buoyancy.

You have really succeeded in your visions Philip, in your designs, you build

sustainably which is really honorable, you create such accessible &

inspiring varieties of space which allow for so much creative possibility- & innovation.

These are environments that one can make their mark & mold, become inspired by, participate- in, consciously. You also started 222 Gallery– soon after Otto Design Group, what compelled you to start your own gallery?

PO: The gallery started as a way to support artists we were involving in projects. Os Gemenos was the first show – their first in the US.

Each show has led to the next.

AV: Then you opened another 222 Gallery, soon after- in LA- as well.

PO: Yes, wherever we have an office.

I think design studios are dreadfully boring to look at.

AV: What a fabulous idea! Yes design studios can sometimes really be an eye sore, but not yours!!

It seems like you really love Philadelphia, you take some really stunning

portraits of the city, what drew you to Philadelphia?

PO: I have learned to love Philadelphia- the surreal, abandoned elegance, the

Wissahickon Park, the city of R.Crumb’s childhood, Sun Ra, Coltrane, etc..

It’s weird in the way Seattle is weird.

You can buy a building and do weird projects.

See Big Kids, Little Kids by John Freeborn– as well..

Yes, I have learned to love it.

I moved initially because of work.

My wife, Susan, is creative director at Urban Outfitters which is based here.

She needs to be here and my daughter loves the woods – she’s five.

We also live in Venice Beach. My daughter really loves Venice Beach!

AV: Sounds incredible- again it’s art, poetry & influence, exploration..

It is wonderful that you & your wife & family travel so much,

living & working, building in all these incredible places- reminds

me of my upbringing.

You all must love to juggle travel & work, yes?

PO: We all love it. My daughter, Emmy Isabelle, started traveling with us at

19 days old – she is a wonderful traveler, handles it so well.

AV: And Susan is interested in sustainability & the environment as well


PO: Susan, loves the found object a great deal and has a great sense of

materials – always a wonderful use of reclaimed elements in her work, the

ordinary object elevated. . .

AV: You have designed some environmentally friendly, UO as well.


PO: I’m proud of the one I designed for the Oxford Circus location in London.

I’ve also done, Far Coast with the planted roof….

Real Goods, the water sculpture there, Marshall Mc Gearty – is all

reclaimed, UO- Costa Mesa – freeway debris

sculpture, etc…

& I designed the gates to the Solar Living Center in Hopland, CA, and the retail interior as well.
The gates embody wind, solar, hydro in a metaphorical way.

The water sculpture piece is my favorite – it is so simple.

A pipe leaks water onto corrugated metal panels.

As it falls it creates the sound of rain on a tin roof.

Quite lovely, especially on a hot day in the wine country.

And, UO is a great client and makes the commitment to the use of a great deal of reclaimed material – especially flooring.

The exterior sculpture we created for UO in Costa Mesa & listed

above, is a huge arcing wave, made completely from the local debris of freeway construction sites.
With any client, the focus has got to be on the culture of the audience that needs to be reached.

However, salvaged materials, architectural details, found furniture, etc, can all be used for character yes, but also make good economic and ecological sense at this point.

Energy efficient lighting is a good example of green agenda thinking that checks as a good move, even in the most cynical business analysis, because it saves money.

The work with Odg is intrinsically Green.

John Schaeffer, who started Real Goods the solar company, once

told me I was green without even saying it based on early

dumpster diving approaches to projects he had seen by our group.

That was why he brought us into the Solar living Center project where we were part of an all star green team that included Sim Van der Ryn, Ralph Nader, Greenpeace . . . Odg!
Marshall McGearty I should tell you is in the Wicker Park area of Chicago.

It has my favorite reclaimed floor thus far – railroad ties from South East

Asia – all Teak and other tropical hardwoods.

Next to Moroccan tiles, & salvaged church pews. . .

But, it is a smoking lounge / club backed by RJ Reynolds!

I could rationalize that it takes smokers out of the public space, that it has a prototypical air system that creates better air quality than is found on the street outside the doors, which is true.

But mainly it is the hedonistic side of tobacco – a gourmet offering where you can design your own blend and have a Latte while you wait.

Some like Heroin, some like Tobacco.

Still, not PC. . .

We did get Coca Cola to go Green that same year though!


AV: They are great spaces & works, even more so- for their creativity &

environmental thoughtfulness.. And, you are innovative & creative in the way

you visualize, describe & manifest- spaces, which translates quite well, in your

work. I love the Water Sculpture.. The SLC wow!

I will certainly make a visit to Marshall McGearty in Wicker Park.

Yes we all pick our poisons.

My Grandmother Lilly who worked in Interior Design & my uncle Lars who created & ran ASKI, I am certain- would be unduly impressed.

& fantastic- that you got Coca Cola to go Green!!

Speaking of poetry, who are your favorite poets?

PO: The word poetry has always worried me.

Beethoven wrote little, but notated some great things when he did.

I like what he said about his music- “I am a tone poet”.

I like the idea of something like ‘word sketches’ as a phrase

better by the same token.

Poetry seems so loaded with expectation!

Anyways, I like Brautigan, Rilke, Schiller, Poe. . .

AV: I love Rilke-.

‘A Peculiar Ideal.’

By, Friedrich von Schiller –

What thou thinkest, belongs to all; what thou feelest, is thine only.

Wouldst thou make him thine own, feel thou the God whom thou thinkest!”

Great poets & related themes- to yours, as well.

Here is one of your poems:

An Unknown Form.

At one time

the military

had built concrete bunkers

on three hilltops

to observe the horizon


I found these outposts

years later


I put

radio wave disruptors


each bunker

a government agency

in researching

the source

of the disturbances

found a shape

a ragged triangle

in which

no transmissions

of any kind

could be heard

that void

will be

my sculpture


AV: You are a partner in the software firm Verificon, with Princeton

researchers – & hold the patent for retail flow and response observation


What is retail flow and response observation software?

PO: I have Stanford friends who asked me to be a consultant in generating

applications for their software design.

Wayne Wolf was my good friend in college.

I now have a patent of software that links cameras to computers and analyzes how people really move through spaces.

There really are no metrics for this currently – so how are spaces planned?

It’s a bit of intuition and superstition right now.

AV: Sounds really, really interesting, I want to put one of these in my house, for flow, analyze my movements… HAH!

PO: Visual recognition software takes video and translates it into metrics so you can begin to measure movement through a space – bottlenecks, dead spots, high traffic, what really happens and what really works objectively.

AV: What would one hope to see, or read as the outcome? More efficient use of space?

PO: You could look at space- like hits on a website – a page at a glance that shows you areas of greatest activity, neglect, etc. .

Basically what are the areas of focus and interest – not just what you suspect, but a pure view of it, like science – you can see the objective results of your plan.

AV: Some of your ‘Sketches’ are reminiscent of Kathe Kollwitz, do you like her?

PO: I love Kathe Kollwitz, yes – also Lovis Corinth.

AV: Corinth, greatness.When did you teach at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia?

What was this like for you?

PO: At U Arts I taught professional practice with one of my former design

associates of Otto Design Group – Rama Chorpash, and lectured on the use

of reclaimed and green materials in Otto Design Group projects.

And, at Princeton I lectured on the analysis of contemporary consumer


At Philadelphia U. I lectured on our approach to design at Otto Design


AV: Rama Chorpash’s philosophy is amazing – “Design comes from a relationship, not from an individual.

It should connect with one’s self, with one another & to the world.”

Do you have any cinematic influences?

Your spaces call out for dreams, books, letters, music, differing sensees of & time & place, drama!

Environments as stages for these events to occur.

PO: Chris Marker, Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, Kubrick. . .

Robert Frank, he did some experimental films involving insect

wings. . .

I’m a fan – I have many heroes!

AV: I am just discovering, Marker & Tarkovsky– Thank you- they are

great!!! I see- the influence….

Why is sustainability, energy efficiency & the environment

important to you in your design work?

PO: I would say that ultimately we do culturally based design at Odg.
Everything, every discipline, every team we assemble for a project is acting in support of this premise – that we will start with the client’s audience and speak appropriately to that group.
Having said this, basing decision making in culture- sustainability, energy efficiency, the environment– flow inescapably, from that premise.
You could say it differently – real materials with character, cost conscious, memorable.

What audience doesn’t want these things.

Then you can bring green agenda practices without trying to convince – it just is.It’s in the approach.

It is what is attractive- in the work.

It’s there whether you talk about it or not – intrinsically!

AV: I really believe this is true, very well said-

You could say it differently – real materials with character, cost conscious, memorable.What audience doesn’t want these things.”


As an artist & a designer, what is it about the spaces that we live, work & create in, that you think is the most important to focus on?

PO: That spaces and environments should be interesting and inspirational.

When you leave them you want to tell someone about the things

you saw, what you were able to do.

This can mean many things from a space that is so simple that it is the perfect blank page to an environment that is so intense you want to visit it, leave, and return again and again.

AV: Where else to go, but in & out of rooms, spaces & places, where else to live, it’s culture- a culture of spaces & worlds…

What incredible places to go, Odg’s thoughtful, unique & inspiring creations.

Thank you so much for carving up such a great Totem with us Philip.

Philip Harold Otto’s work & many more spectacular designs are at ODG

& visit- 222 Gallery.

Interview of Philip Harold Otto, for ART VOLUME ONE,

by, Chicago artist & writer, Amy M Denes.

Science Projects Volume I:The Photography & Work of Robin Cracknell.


A Conversation with Robin Cracknell.


AV: How old were you when you left India?

RC: I left India when I was six. Calcutta, as fascinating as it was, was no match for the American dream.

Even though my parents were English, America was the place to be in the 60’s so off we marched.

In India, I remember people talking about The Beatles and Elvis. You weren’t supposed to like both.
I guess we chose Elvis.

AV: Do you like the Beatles? I love the Beatles.

RC: The only thing I have ever shoplifted- was The Beatles ‘Something New’
from the Lechmere Store in Dedham, MA when I was maybe 14 or so.
I liked it ( although, in hindsight, I wish I’d gone for ‘Revolver’ ) but,
not long after that, my uncle gave me Exile on Main Street and the
Stones just took over.

AV: Did your childhood in India cause you to reflect on the rest of the world
in a different way when you arrived in the US?

RC: It really did.

To this day, I can’t throw away a scrap of food or watch clean water disappear down a drain without feeling terribly guilty. My mother worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta ( she was only sister Teresa then ) & it was a childhood of contrasts. Rich ( relatively ) white boy surrounded by immense poverty- something my mother insisted I see & understand. My sister & I were never shielded from that world and, although we grew up with servants that fanned us to sleep, there were beggars & lepers on our doorstep.

In America, my school friends had never even heard of India.

Everyone assumed I’d come over from Indiana or was part Cherokee.
I felt very different from my friends and my embarrassment at speaking
with an English accent turned into a sort of stutter which haunted me
for decades.

AV: I had similar experiences as you arriving to the US from the Philippines, funny. What was living in the US like for you?

RC: It was the proverbial land of plenty.

It was hard to make sense of all the luxury around us when,
until then, my head had been full of the starving millions.
The adjustment was hardest on my father, I think.
He went from being the master of the house with Raj-like power to just an average Joe with an office job.

But, he got his red Mustang convertible so he fit in eventually.

AV: What was it like living in Boston?

RC: Boston is a great place to live. I still miss being there.

AV: What do you miss?

RC: I just miss America full stop.
Part of that desire to return might be a sort of misguided nostalgia for times past but, compared to England,
I think America is a much friendlier, kinder place with so many more opportunities.
I also never took much stock in family when I was younger but, over time, I feel this need to be nearer to them.

AV: I find this funny, as I think Americans can sometimes be mean & my experiences with the English has been friendly.. & that England has more opportunities for an artist, because their funding of the arts is much greater than that of the US. It is nice to be close to family, over time yes.


AV: When did you first pick up a camera?

RC: I remember the day I first looked through the lens of a single-reflex camera so vividly.

My friend Karl Jackson had a cheap SLR around his neck while were killing time by the handball courts at school.
I was bored and asked if I could look through it.
He passed it to me and I looked through that viewfinder and the world just looked different.
The ground glass. The focusing. It was amazing.
I felt strangely empowered. It was weird.
I begged my parents for a few weeks and eventually got my own camera.

Everything changed after that.

AV: What happened when you finally dove into a serious interest in photography?

RC: Shortly after getting my own camera, I began taking pictures of my friends and selling the prints to their parents for $3.
I also set up a darkroom in my father’s den.
It was very uncool to like photography at my school
( the photography teacher was very camp and we were all called ‘photo-fags’ )
but I liked it enough to endure all that and I just documented everything I saw.

AV: Very interesting… & funny, do you still have any of these 3$ prints??

RC: No! I wish I did. My memory of them is that they were actually pretty good.


AV: What was living in Georgetown like for you?

RC: Georgetown feels like another lifetime. It was a very preppy school with a lot of spoiled, robotic types there waiting to inherit Daddy’s fortune, but there were also enough marginal types like myself to have a feeling of community.
I was an outsider but I met a lot of other wonderful outsiders there. There was a lot of drinking and drugging but a lot of writing and poetry and deep friendships too.

AV: I identify very much with “I was an outsider but I met a lot of other wonderful outsiders”, works that way for some of us does it not. What were you reading at the time?

RC: Well, the ones I remember were Flannery O’Connor, Salinger, Milton, Keats, Beowulf, a lot of modern poets…. Sylvia Plath made me feel more normal. Anne Sexton made her mark.
Everything got thrown at us.
I devoured it all.

AV: I love O’Connor’s ‘Everything that rises must Converge‘ & Plath makes me feel more normal as well, HAH.

Who are more of your favorite writers?

RC: Richard Ford always strikes a nerve with me. Martin Amis rarely lets me down. David Shields’ ‘Dead Languages’ is maybe my favorite of all time. Frederick Exley I love. Andrea Ashworth, ‘Once in a House on Fire’ blew me away.

AV: I’ve never heard of these authors-I’ll have to look them up, ‘Once in a house on Fire’ sounds amazing-.

RC: ‘Once in a House of Fire’ is heartbreaking and so beautifully written.
Childhood memoirs seem all the rage these days but this one is really something special.

AV: What was the culture in this period of your life, through your eyes?

RC: The only culture I was aware of at the time was spoiled European rich kids killing time until they went home to work for their parents. It was the 80’s and the music, the clothes, everything seemed very boring.
Punk and English ‘subversion’ was what attracted me and I hoped I’d end up there eventually.
Washington DC back then was very corporate.
The DC music scene was fantastic but the Georgetown crowd was very white, very buttoned down, dull dull dull.

AV: I notice you seem to have an affinity for the number 11- the way you present it in gradients of luminescent aqua blue & overlain over your son’s back & nape, 11 in this image has a great deal of psychological power & funnily enough, now I’ve been noticing the number 11 everywhere- echoing this beautiful glowing image..

Do you have an affinity for the number, does it have a special significance to you?

RC: I think I read somewhere 11 is a critical time in a boy’s life. In some cultures, it represents the entry to manhood when a boy could make love and make war.
I like the way the number looks as well.
As a child who stuttered, any repeated number has a sort of symbolism for me.
I certainly remember 11 as being a traumatic year.
The end of good things. The beginning of terrible things (so it felt).

AV: Now I have an even greater appreciation for ’11’. And especially now, in looking at ‘Stutter’ again..


AV: What were some of your experiences with photo illustration for English publishers?

RC: It was great to be paid for doing what you loved and exciting to see your work produced on a such a grand scale and often appearing on posters on bus shelters and things. I worked with some great art directors who gave me so much freedom to interpret books as I wished.
They were wonderful years. Things changed when publishers started buying stock photographs but, for a while, it was a very exciting industry.

AV: Too bad stock has taken over, they should return to artistic commissions- just as the amazing recent film The Silence of Sleep returned to gorgeous stop motion animation.

Do you think that this work experience at this point in your life-
fed into your continued attraction to narrative & as you say, stories “about love, loss and language” in your work?

RC: I think the ‘love, loss and language’ obsession is just a part of me.
My way of working something out.
Like therapy.
The work experience was exciting and a good ‘job’ but my real work came out later
when I left the commercial stuff behind, took care of my son and slowly, over 10 years, my real work surfaced.
The transition from commercial work to ‘fine art’ is tough. For me, it took a long time to figure out what exactly it was I had to tell the world.

AV: Your photography is very therapeutic… & not only did you find out what your work means, so did we.

Your work does have this effect of being in motion, a psychological & symbolic motion, which is not often captured in a still image. And you use a great deal of controlled & thought out manual artistic manipulation. It reminds me of similar techniques that Stan Brakhage employed in hand manipulating his films.. Do you like Brakhage?

What do you think of him?

RC: I’ve only just discovered him thanks to you, but yes, he is obviously the master.
He called it ‘pure cinema’ and, of course, that is what it is.
Forget the narrative, forget the tricks, forget the music….just these flickering images like a dream.
I love the silence.
We forget what silence actually ‘sounds’ like sometimes.
The story is in there somewhere too but, like an abstract painting, you find that story for yourself.
I’m a big fan of Joseph Cornell and I see that Brakhage and Cornell were friends which is no surprise.
The term ‘visual poetry’ is overused but it is exactly what Brakhage is all about. (I almost don’t want to see too much of his work. I’m afraid I’ll subconsciously steal from him.)
But, yes, he is a revelation.

AV: What are some of your techniques?

One of my favorite images of yours is- Memory a 50 x 50 C-type print.
It has this ebulliently speckled & light sepia tint, the water is glacial & fresh, & typically, if you cannot see a sitters face one gets a visceral & disturbing reaction, or a sense of dislocation, or alienation.

But in ‘Memory’ it’s as though he is blowing the bubble of his soul, one part revelation & another psychological- & a meeting of the elemental & the psychic…

How did you achieve some of these effects?

RC: Oh, that’s a great interpretation. Thanks. I can’t really give away my secrets but I work with a combination of conventional film and 35mm cine film.
Also, bleach and chemicals and time. And accidents! It is all very random. Nothing digital.
That ‘Memory’ print means a lot to me. My son and I had returned to America for the first time in a while and he so wanted to move there and leave England behind and just start over.


AV: Have you ever attempted digital?

RC: Nope.

AV: What does the portrait of your son ‘Memory’ mean to you.
And, what does memory, signify to you?

RC: My son and I were swimming in this lake near my sister’s house and I remember thinking I had never seen him so happy. His face in that picture was just beaming, just overflowing with abandon and delight.
The obvious thing would be to preserve that, but I like the idea of those old super eight movies when, at the end, all these white dots would flicker and the screen would suddenly go bright white, so I worked that into the image instead.

I wanted it to be like an ending and a new beginning–or maybe a face so happy that all there is is light.

We were so happy, swimming in this wonderful lake, in what felt like a million miles from home.
This picture is about starting over and putting pain behind you.

And, well, what isn’t memory?
It is all memory.
The past is another country as they say. We are shaped by memory, haunted by it, comforted by it. I’m still trying to make sense of it. I’m interested in trauma and how traumatic memories create the people we are and change us forever.
Therapy is all about unraveling memories and maybe that is something art does.


AV: Yes, the past is another country.

“Therapy is all about unraveling memories and maybe that is something art does” I agree.

You tell us- “These images are deteriorating. Although the prints are standard, archival C-types, it is the nature of the chemical processes I use on the negatives that, over the course of time, those negatives will deteriorate and eventually disappear.
All prints are single editions unique to their date of printing because, as the negatives are corroding, they cannot ever be accurately duplicated. Over time, like their subject matter and the places and feelings they document, they will change, fade and vanish.”

I think what is so remarkable about the risks you take with your work, is this bold confrontation & acceptance of the inevitable, yet, in this disclosure we are closer to life than we could ever imagine?
Does this ring true to you?

RC: Yes! You’ve put it so well I don’t know what I can add to what you’ve said. Photography is our feeble way of stopping or slowing down time but we can’t. It’s inevitable that we will die and all these pictures will corrode and disappear but we go on making them anyway.

Something both sad and yet very romantic about that.

AV: Very true, perhaps we should also think of a return to cave painting, but that is not even a full guarantee that one’s images will survive. Ha ha? I love cave paintings.

I’d like to hear more of your own philosophies on your visual language.

RC: No real philosophy. I’m just digging away at something.

Most ‘visual things’ like corporate images and advertising and most ‘art’ just doesn’t connect with me at all on any level so my work is just my little way of redressing the balance!
I make pictures that make sense to me.
I’m not a great writer or singer –I’ll never be Lou Reed or Bob Dylan— and I can’t really paint so, fortunately, I have this thing I can do.
When my images make sense to others, I’m so flattered it gives me the confidence to make some more. That’s about it.

AV: I think ‘Doll House’, ‘A Love Big As’ & ‘Fallow The Dream’ are original, complex & beautifully organic works, fantastic & meaningful narrative surprises in them as well… And, I think a sense of awareness & recognition from others of one’s work, is occasionally vital for most- artists, I work that way-! Do you think awareness & recognition from others is vital for most artists?

RC: Oh, I do. Completely. I’m not strong enough to work in a vacuum.
I am so consumed by self-doubt every step of the way that I absolutely need feedback to keep going.
I always have this gnawing feeling inside of ‘this is just not good enough’ so recognition allows me to ignore that doubt for a while and carry on.

AV: Wow, what an honest way to put it, I really identify, this does happen. And, yes the vacuum is terribly draining.

Got to love all potentialities.

Do you have any other photographers, or artists in your family?

RC: My mother had a lot of natural ability but, sadly, never had the time to develop it.
As far as I know, no one in my family has ever been even remotely interested in art.
Quite the opposite.
Creativity was something I felt I always had to compromise and hide away and apologize for.

AV: I think you definitely inherited your mother’s natural ability & have applied it beautifully.
Did you- hide & apologize for your creativity??


RC: In my family and in my school, art or anything creative was seen as a bit suspect.

Art was something for the girls. It wasn’t until I learned more about the lives of artists (particularly The New York School) that I realized those artists were the real rock and rollers of their days and this was just what I was going to do no matter what anyone thought.

Being a fashion photographer later on obviously had its rewards but, until then, photography was seen as being very nerdy and it was a rather lonely obsession.
I think my son feels the same way about his stamps and his Scrabble.
It is lonely when you love something and no one else sees the point.

AV: Ha, ha wow! I am in agreement, It can be very lonely sometimes, yes. And I love stamps. Your son is 13 now yes? Does he share in your love for photography?

RC: Yes, Jake is now 13. As yet, he’s not particularly interested in art or photography which is just fine with me. I want him to be his own person and, for now, our enthusiasms are different which is probably as it should be. He is a gifted, many-times-published poet but I have no idea at all what road he’ll eventually follow.

AV: I’d love to read his poetry sometime, If I may.

What cameras do you use?

RC: Although I have a 5 x 4 view camera, a 6 x 6 cm Bronica and some Polaroids, I use mainly 35mm cameras.

An ancient Nikon F3 and an even older F2.

AV: It seems that you prefer film, as opposed to digital, are there other advantages to film other than the obvious?

RC: I just love film. The texture, what you can do to it.
The way it ages. The surface.
I can’t explain why but it just feels very real to me.

AV: What do you think of digital media & it’s results & qualities having entered into the language of our visual media & that of our visual experiences?

RC: Well, it probably has a lot to do with speed and cost but the finished product, to my eyes, is never ever the same.

AV: I am really really curious about ‘Pet Sounds’- may we have a
little bit of it’s premise?

RC: I read that Werner Herzog never takes more than a week to write a screenplay.
I’ve been working on ‘Pet Sounds’ for 3 or 4 years.
It’s about a child who is raped and then decides never to speak again and how this decision makes his family disintegrate around him.
It’s set in Sixties America, the summer of love etc. All about contrasts,the end of a dream, the end of childhood.

AV: GASP. I cannot wait- to see this!!!!! Profound.

You also tell us “The photographs, in many ways, are just a prelude to film making.
The processes and techniques I use are more cinematography than photography anyway”…

I must ask you about your love for cinema, how did this
come about & what have been favorite cinematic experiences, films?

RC: Oh God, where do I begin? Cinema, for me, is the ultimate way we have to lose ourselves.
That and, maybe, sex or amazing music is about the only time we can really lose ourselves.

A few that have stuck with me are My Life as a Dog, Midnight Cowboy, The King of Comedy,
Picnic at Hanging Rock, Dancer in the Dark, Don’t Look Now….
And a million others.

AV: I cried my eyes out at the ending of Dancer in the Dark , even after the theater had been empty, for a long time.
Important & poignant film I think, Bjork’s performance was amazing….

How do you employ cinematographic techniques? For those of us who do not know the mechanics?
And who are your greatest film making influences & why?

RC: Well, I have an odd collection of still images taken from obscure foreign films and I try and emulate that ‘picture out of context’ feeling in my work as though my photograph is just a
fragment of some other narrative.
Technically, I also use graphics from cine film which I sometimes scratch into the image to give them that timeworn feeling.
Like the 11 image you mentioned earlier. Also, I go for the sorts of Technicolor colors one sometimes gets in 60’s and 70’s cinema. I like all sorts of directors and cinematographers but never remember their names. Lasse Halstrom and Lars Von Trier seem to come up with goods most of the time though. Scorcese is a master of course.


AV: I definitely get these color scheme influences in your ‘Cine’ project works. & I am curious about your image of a quiet winter lake, rows of spindly & delicate trees & calm mists & a low fog…
Where did you find this image & what did you do to it?
It could almost be an aqua tint- also reminiscent of dry point prints by Rembrandt.

RC: Yes, I love that image too. That is a found image–a piece of 16mm film rescued from a trash bin outside some arty cinema house in London– which I stored away in a metal box for years.
When I looked at it again, I noticed rust had developed on the surface so I printed it.

AV: HA! You are full of incredible mysteries.

And 60’s & 70’s film- yes, incredibly vibrant!! ‘Valley of
the Dolls’
bright, still have yet to see it, the trailer I saw, in grainy golds & red’s, muted tar blacks, quite lush colors…

Do you ever get people to sit for you or people for

RC: I always use ‘real’ people. People I know. Sometimes I have to work with people I don’t know and that can be interesting but not at all the same experience.

AV: Who would you love to get to sit for you?

RC: I met Francis Bacon once and asked him but he very politely turned me down. I see faces every day on the bus or in the street and fall in love with them but I have never dared approach anyone with that sort of request.

AV: You should, request! Please request.
Bacon?? My goodness Robin!! I’ve loved Bacon since I was 13!! I too wanted to meet him, any other details on your run in with him to share?
I know I would not be alone in this odd request.
Bacon said of his love of gambling something along the lines of “It’s interesting to see so much concentrated winning & losing in one place”..

RC: I used to live near South Kensington in London and would see Bacon all the time.
One time I happened to have a postcard of his in my pocket which he signed. We talked about Julian Schnabel once on a street corner and he was just lovely.
A very friendly, rather funny looking old man and not at all like what you would expect.

AV: Wow, you just made many people happy, we may live vicariously- through you.

I love the work of Ed Paschke, I wanted to meet him as well- & ironically his studio is very nearby where I live, he was also a very generous & congenial artist. He curated shows ( 2000’s ‘Les Chemical Carnales’ a four person show curated by, Ed Paschke ) for his students, friends or apprentices, and he made sure to see their openings, if he could not attend he would see the show when he was able. I don’t know what the progress is on making his studio a historic site, since his death. I am sure it must be expensive, but I & I am certain many, would love to pay to make a visit.

And, Chris Ware has been very popular in Chicago as of late & I suppose I should- like his work, obviously a great deal of people love his work, & I do like it on some levels, but there is something very vital, essential, lacking for me.

I guess, I have this expectation that artworks have very organic, compelling and honest elements to them & his ‘cartoon art works’, even with the tales of adversity one of his characters Jimmy Corrigan goes through, I just don’t fully register authentically- with his work on this visceral level. I think I do, I can, find the work of R.Crumb, compelling.

Schnabel’s ‘Before Night Falls’ about the life of Reinaldo Arenas, was incredible. Nice Artist to Film maker transition there!….I am not a huge fan of his paintings, I am more of a fan of some of his older work, Hope I really really like, I like the broken chaotic domesticity of his shattered & mosaic- like dish impasto paintings.

What did Bacon say about Schnabel? Do you still have his signed postcard?

RC: I asked Bacon about something I had read where Schnabel had phoned him up wanting to chat and Bacon, apparently, had slammed the phone down having no interest in him at all. I asked him if that was true. He didn’t exactly deny it.
I got the impression he wasn’t into Schnabel or any other contemporary painter. Yes, I do still have the postcard, of course!
I’m still amazed that I actually had a Bacon postcard in my pocket when I bumped into him!
AV: Interesting about Schnabel & other contemporary painters, Bacon was on his own! That is amazing, that you had his postcard in your pocket when you bumped into him.

AV: Did you show Bacon your work?

RC: No, I never got around to discussing photography with Bacon. I sent him a photograph later but have no idea whether he got it or not. My impression was he really wasn’t interested in anyone’s work but his own. Not in a bad way. Just that he was focused on his own thing and
other art and other artists were just superfluous!

AV: Is there a place in the world, that you would love to shoot & why?

RC: Hmmm. I’m not so much about places. I’d like to go back to India though and re shoot my childhood haunts in the way Christian Boltanski re-stages scenes from his childhood.

AV: I have an odd philosophy about ‘place’…. & I would love- to see this Robin, do it please, do go to India & re- shoot your childhood haunts. I also love your ‘India’ c-type photograph, with mixed media, it’s your mother, holding you as an infant yes??
I’ve never heard of Christian Boltanski ! I love him, lot’s to learn about him & I see a relationships between your & his work.

RC: Yes, Boltanksi is a big influence. I especially love his pictures of children and his installations. He seemed very interested in grief and memory. My mother, who fought cancer for years and died when I was relatively young, is someone who often appears in my work for similar reasons–a way of making sense of this once powerful force now reduced to a blurry memory, a couple of faded pictures and a handful of letters…

AV: Your mother has a stunning & unique energy about her & you really succeed at representing her powerful force, your memory of her & your love for her. Your loss of your mother, your grief at her loss, seems to be less about darkness & quite wonderfully light & alive, intimate- warmly curled up in amber tones & symbolically embracing in ‘India’, reverent…

‘It’s not commercial’ & ‘Image’ are other favorites of your photographs- they got me laughing out loud to myself.. Is this your humor at work? Must be…

RC: I guess it must be. I find those very funny too. Those are found bits of cine film discovered in the wastebasket in the projection booth of the ICA cinema in London.


AV: How did you get into the projection booth? &, where do you go now to find your clippings?

RC: When I first moved to London, I was cold, bored and broke and the ICA was a warm place to hang out all day. The bookshop was amazing and they had foreign movies running all afternoon. I eventually met the projectionist and we just chatted away in the projection booth.

I noticed these bits of film cuttings everywhere and just gathered them up. He’s not there anymore and I think most of the movies there are now digital so who knows where I’ll get my next dose? 35mm ‘proper’ cine film is a dying art. I suppose that’s part of the attraction.

AV: Who is the boy in ‘x’?” I get a visceral reaction from it to ask.

&, ‘Being Four’, really transports me to 4, by the way, I’ve never seen anything that gives me this reaction. Every time I look at 4, I become 4, it’s astonishing because I’ll feel Thailand & hear the waxy whispering of the Banana trees & see the Floating bows of Red Hibiscus… Many memories.

RC: What a lovely thing to say. Thanks. That is me in Boy X. Age six, just arrived from India. Staying at my grandparents’ house in Dedham MA.
Being 4 goes back to a time when my son was unhappy in the aftermath of a complicated custody battle. I kept thinking, this is not how being four should feel.

AV: I wondered if it could be you, your ‘Memory’ in Boy X.

Yes, being 4 should be happy & 4, that age has such an intense, delicate & personal intimacy with reality & the world.

In some of your images, you use French & then what looks like Korean or Chinese characters..’Sunday Best’ for example- what languages do you use, are they mostly Asian languages in origin?

And for those of us who do not know Korean or Chinese, what is being said?

RC: I have had some bits and pieces translated. Sometimes they fit and sometimes they don’t. I suppose I’m more interested in them as ‘marks’ as opposed to anything literal. I just love the look of them, the feel, the texture and also the inscrutability. Most of the words are cinema
terms like ‘Start’, ‘Reel One’, ‘The End’, etc.


AV: Would you consider showing in Chicago?
RC: I’ve never shown in Chicago –or anywhere in America. Of course, I would love to.

AV: What do you think of the photographs that people have taken, reproductions of your images via the web etc, what do you think of the fact that these images will survive, after your originals have disintegrated?

RC: Well, with the internet, it’s a necessary evil I suppose that your work ends up in strange places, in strange hands. But discovering your photographs on some Estonian teenager’s blog or getting fan mail from an art student in China is also a wonderful thing. I’m happy they’re out there.

If they survive in pixilated form after I’m dead and gone, that’s fine but, for me, but the only real versions are the prints. On a monitor, they look like cheap imitations so I’m not too precious about where those end up.

AV: ’11’ !! Thank you so much, Robin.
More of Robin Cracknell’s work & representation, can be found at his website.


Robin Cracknell was interviewed for Art Volume One, by, Chicago artist & writer Amy M Denes.

Science Projects Vol 0:Strange Attractors:Photo & Video Installment


Strange Attractors.