Researched by Fabrizio Pannone
NACIO JAN BROWN
When did your passion for photography begin? What was your first camera?
It was in 1965. I had been to Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles in 1961 and 1962 and when I moved back to San Francisco I decided to become a painter. My paintings were bad and, all the worse, they were big-five to seven feet on a side. At a certain point I wanted to photograph them so I took them outside and leaned them up against a garage door. My first attempt was with a little Kodak Instamatic about the size of a harmonica. This produced poor results so I bought a larger model Instamatic. Still poor results. I then bought a Mamiya-Sekor single lens reflex, a real camera. As soon as I had it in my hands I knew I was done with painting it was going to be photography.
What is photography to you?
Over the next couple of years I photographed a variety of subjects—portraits, nudes, nature, etc.—all the while searching for what mattered to me. This was the era of Vietnam War protests, civil rights demonstrations, and a growing counter-culture movement at odds with mainstream America. And Berkeley, where I was living by this time, was at the forefront of all of it. I discovered that photography was my way of being involved.I had found my subject matter. Over the next several years I photographed virtually all of the Bay Area protests (many turning into riots) for various underground newspapers of the time.
Then, in 1969, I decided to do a book on the vibrant counter-culture street scene of a single block of Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. The block was the epicenter of all that the Berkeley of the times represented. It was also the block where I had spent years of my life drinking cappuccino at the Caffé Mediterraneum. When I began I imagined that the shooting would take several months. Instead I photographed for four years and then spent an additional two years on book production. The book, Rag Theater, came out in 1975 in two editions: a signed and numbered limited (300) hardbound edition and a soft-bound edition.
Which masters of photography inspire you?
Werner Bischof, one of the founders of Magnum, comes to mind immediately. I saw his work in the 1968 book, The Concerned Photographer, and his elegant, classically balanced compositions became an ideal to strive for. Another book of the time, Bruce Davidson’s East 100th Street, was also an inspiration. That work, like my Rag Theater project, was closely focused on the life of a single street. But there was more than that. The quality of the reproductions in Davidson’s book was amazing and high technical quality had always been a goal of mine—I wanted my prints to be as rich and detailed as Davidson’s. I was working in 35mm and, without much thinking about it, I more or less assumed that Davidson was too. What I found out only years later was that Davidson had been shooting with a custom hand-held 4×5 camera. In retrospect, I see that my mistaken assumption served me well as it meant that I could never stop working toward better and better technical quality. Other photographers who inspired me were W. Eugene Smith and Andre Kertesz. Once, when I sold a large library of photo books, I kept only one book, Andre Kertesz – Sixty Years of Photography.
What photographs of great photographers have struck you the most?
It’s hard to narrow it down to single photographs. I love Bischof’s early 1950s work in Asia, Kertesz’s early work, and Davidson’s whole East 100th Street project. With W. Eugene Smith it’s easy—I think that “Tomoko in her Bath” from the Minamata series is one of the great photographs of the 20th Century. Its formal perfection serves, rather than distracts from, the overwhelming emotion of the scene. This lack of tension between the two elements is rarely achieved.
What is your favorite technique?
That has evolved over the years. When I began the Rag Theater project I was very good at making strong, balanced portraits of individual people. A.D. Coleman regards such “Well-Made” images, both in painting and photography, as a trope. I have not become as tired of the form as he has but I became bored with making them. Also, as more and more proofs accumulated on my walls, it became clear that I needed to learn to make other kinds of images. So, quite deliberately, I worked to learn other ways of seeing.
I began to photograph more groups rather than just single individuals. Where most of my images had been straight on and, consequently, still, I began to introduce diagonals, making them more dynamic. I photographed people from behind. I pointed my camera down, even when using a somewhat wide-angle lens. A wide-angle lens technique I used was to shoot from about chest height with the camera back exactly perpendicular to the ground so as to avoid converging verticals. This produces an effect that’s hard to describe but which worked for me.
Finally, and this was the most difficult, I learned to make photographs where the subject matter is diffuse across the frame and cannot be easily described. In these photographs the eye is not immediately led to a central subject. Instead, it wanders here and there around the image at a leisurely pace. These images remain for me the most satisfying to make well.
Why do street photography?
First, my view of street photography is very broad. I’ve read various sets of “Rules of Street Photography” and find them quite arbitrary, not to say doctrinaire. One proposed rule states that if anyone in the photograph is making eye contact with the camera then it’s not true Street Photography. Question: if the person making eye contact is at the edge of the frame and I crop them out what then? Does that change things? The whole idea of rules is absurd. In 1964 US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart declined to attempt to define obscenity, stating instead, “I know it when I see it.” It is the same with street photography. Being on the street is a pretty much universal human experience and the best street photography can show us things that are there, right in front of us, but that we have somehow failed to see. The traditional greats from Cartier-Bresson and Kertesz, to Robert Frank and Winogrand—all have done this. So have Henry Wessel and Alec Soth. And Lee Friedlander, not least in his “Mannequins” series, and Martin Parr in his hilarious book of garish close-ups, Common Sense. I see all as part of the broad continuum of Street Photography. For my own part, the Rag Theater project was a way not to forget, a way for all of us who were there on the street to remember how it was.
What is your best shot and what does it represent to you?
I’ll pick two shots. The first is a shot I made in 1969 that I liked so much that, on the basis of this shot alone, I decided to do a book.
The next is a shot I made toward the end of shooting in 1973. I like it because when I began the project I would not have seen the shot.
You were working in a unique period. Do you miss those times?
Actually, the times were more unique than I realized. When I began photographing on Telegraph Avenue the scene ran the gamut: flower children and riots, hard drugs and Jesus freaks, left-wing intellectuals and psychedelics, natural foods and runaways. Somehow this variety worked together. However, during the time I photographed things began to fragment. The sense of community where most people on the block identified more with each other than with those on the outside was disappearing. I hadn’t seen this coming but I continued to photograph anyway—whatever happened was part of the story. When the time came to sequence the photographs for the book and, later, for the website, I reflected the chronology, the progression from what seemed to be crazy energy to something dark and sad. Do I miss the times? Not really. Though it became more obvious toward the end of shooting, in retrospect I realize that the darkness and sadness were always there, they were just less overt at first.
Looking at your wonderful photos one feels that you were in close contact with the local community. Is that correct? What relationship did you have with them?
I was, with my cameras, a fixture on the block. When asked by other photographers how to get such openness from the people they photograph I sometimes answer, only half-jokingly, ”Get there first.” If they come to your scene, rather than the other way around, you are in an ideal position. This is, I think, another way of saying, “Photograph what you know.”
I am intrigued by your “persona”: back then who was Nacio Jan Brown?
RagTheater.com is a much expanded version of the project and includes recollections of those on the scene at the time. [http://www.ragtheater.com]
Talk & Slideshow on the occasion of an exhibit at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism [https://vimeo.com/106601170]
Vintage archivally-processed silver-gelatin prints made by the photographer are available from Joseph Bellows Gallery in La Jolla, California. [http://www.josephbellows.com/artists/nacio-jan-brown/#1]
Both editions of Rag Theater are available from Amazon.com. [http://www.amazon.com/Rag-Theater-Telegraph-Berkeley-1969-1973/dp/B000KGNKG0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1428261741&sr=8-1&keywords=rag+theater]