A conversation with Steve Salter from Port Magazine
Steve Salter: What was the initial catalyst for Executive Model? What first drew you to the familiar but highly charged world of the white American male businessman?
Ron Jude: There are two equally important answers to this question. The first part has to do with the way the photographs look, and my eventual approach to making the pictures. I was in London in the summer of 1992 for an exhibition opening and I found myself sitting outside at a pub having a beer right around the time people were getting off work for the day. Before long I was surrounded by business-types, and they were all standing, drinking, with their backs to me. It was an odd enough situation that I took a few photographs of the looming figures. I completely forgot about the pictures for a couple of months until I had the film processed and made a contact sheet. The pictures that stood out were the two or three that I’d taken of the men’s backs. I was struck by the formal qualities of the images, but mostly by the ambiguity of how the men were represented. It felt like there was something in the pictures that could be broadened and investigated further. A day or two later I took my medium format camera to downtown Atlanta (where I was living at the time), and tried, without much success, to replicate what I’d done in London. It took a couple of months of chasing these guys around to figure out how to make the pictures while the men were moving. The Executive Model pictures are all un-posed, spontaneous street photographs. The second part of my answer has to do with where I was at in my life, and the estrangement I felt to my subjects. As I mentioned, I had just moved to Atlanta, and it was the first time I’d ever lived in a truly urban situation with a thriving financial center. I was living pretty poorly, and the world of money seemed very out of reach to me. I had every advantage one could possibly have—I was an educated white guy living in America—and yet, as someone who was raised in a rural, working class environment, these guys who were driving the economy and reaping the rewards seemed utterly foreign to me. I didn’t know who they were or what they were thinking. On one level I was one of them, but it felt more profoundly like they constituted a club to which I would never belong. It was around this time and just prior, with my Nausea photographs, that I was developing a firm sense of how I wanted to use photography. I was thinking about photography’s documentary mode and traditions and how weak and misguided much of this work was. I liked the documentary platform, but I didn’t like the lazy assumptions that were made about the medium’s veracity and capabilities, especially when it came to the idea of learning about things that fall outside of one’s direct experience. What I set out to do with this early work was to keep things as close to my own experience as possible. To this day, this is how I approach picture making. If the work is about something from my life (which it is, most of the time), I want to reveal how difficult and muddy things get when you try to make narrative sense of the incomprehensibility of existence. If the work is about something that falls outside my experience, as was the case with Executive Model, I want to provide clear visual cues that my subject is unknowable to me. My approach at the time perhaps lacked nuance, but early on, when you’re trying to establish a clear working program, it can be necessary for strategy to preclude subtlety.
SS: Could you talk us through your experiences in the financial districts of Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and San Francisco during the early to mid 90s?
RJ: After I figured out how to make the pictures in Atlanta, I wanted to add a level of spurious anthropological validity to the project by traveling to different financial centers around the country and taking the same basic pictures in each place. The process of making the pictures took on a slightly comical, almost performance-like quality, as I quietly stalked these guys from building to building. There’s a sense when you look at these pictures that you’re completely being ignored, and that’s definitely the sense I had as I was making the photographs. I was typically standing within two or three feet of my subjects, and it was a rare occasion that my presence was noticed. I felt completely invisible. Regardless of whether I was in Chicago or San Francisco, my experience was pretty much the same. I would figure out on a map where I needed to go (city maps are usually marked with something as explicit as “financial center”), and I would spend entire days following people around.
SS: In the series of close up sartorial detail shots the viewer’s eyes search for indicators of individuality in a process that you have previously referred to as ‘half-steps of recognizable difference.’ How much individuality did you see?
RJ: The suit was pretty much always the same. The only things that changed from place to place had to do with the weather conditions—trench coats in Chicago, sunglasses in San Francisco, that sort of thing. On the surface, especially when you’re dealing with a “type,” you don’t see much difference at all, which was part of my point. When you reduce people to archetypes, or models, you create an instant layer of epistemological sludge that’s very difficult to see beneath. With the backs, I was intentionally operating on the most superficial possible level—taking pictures with very little information and asking people to discern something meaningful from the residue. There was a built-in level of frustration to the program. In the spirit of offering something other than total surface, I also shot a subset of hand gestures. I wanted these pictures to be a foil to the way the backs worked. They exude something sympathetic, at times even tragic in the range of emotion they betray from the otherwise solemn figures. They’re meant to rescue the project from being a one-dimensional, caricature-driven lampoon. If there was individuality in this project, half-steps or otherwise, it’s likely to be found in this subset.
SS: Returning to the body of work twenty years on (and following a financial world crisis or two) since you first focused your lens on the subject with the publication of the special editions with Libraryman, how does it make you feel?
RJ: It’s funny, I’ve thought about that, and I suppose on some level there is a renewed relevance to looking at these guys, and thinking about the impenetrable nature of who they are and what they do, and how much influence they wield on our lives. But to be honest, the political nature of the subject has never interested me as much as the philosophical questions that are being asked by the pictures. If there’s a morality at play in this work, it’s the morality of presumed knowledge more than that of political accountability. I think the political questions are important ones, but I would be falsely retrofitting new issues to old work in order to claim that these pictures ask those questions. Of course, releasing the book in the context of everything that’s happened over the past five years, people are bound to bring some of that to looking at these pictures. It’s inevitable and understandable, but ultimately doesn’t really change the heart of the work.
SS: Do you think much has changed? If you were to return to these districts or more around the world, would the series be any different or are these symbols of masculinity and hegemony much more lasting?
RJ: If I were to approach the work with the same intent I had back in 1992, I don’t doubt that the pictures would be pretty much the same. I don’t mean to say that the culture of high-finance hasn’t changed, because I really have no idea–maybe it has, maybe it hasn’t. The pictures would be the same because my relationship to the subject hasn’t changed. It was that relationship, after all, that drove the project.
SS: In addition to the launch of Executive Model, what are you working on?
RJ: Earlier this year I released a book called Lick Creek Line, which I’ve recently been preparing for exhibition. I’ll be showing it, along with Alpine Star and emmett at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago in 2013. I’ve also been shooting new material in the California desert for a project with the working title of Lago. I hope to turn my full attention to that work in the coming year.