IDEA magazine (Japan)

Interview by Madoka Nishi. Published in 2019.

IDEA: Please tell us about the outline of your Still Lifes series books.

Rudy VanderLans: Actually, the Still Lifes books didn’t start out as a series. The working title for the first book was This Vehicle Makes Frequent Stops. It was supposed to be a one-off book of photographs from my travels through California. The title was taken from a sign you often see here in the U.S. on the back of delivery vans or school buses. When I’m on the road photographing, driving around in my car, I often make very sudden stops when I see something that catches my eye. So that’s where that original title idea came from. But I was never really happy with that title, and neither was my publisher. It was a little too cute.

As I was editing the images, and as the book was taking shape, it became obvious that the stillness of the images and the absence of people in them is what tied them all together. So I started referring to the images as still lifes. I also wanted the title to emphasize that the subject was California. “California Still Lifes” seemed a bit too obvious, so I switched the words to read “Still Lifes, California.” That way it looked like it could be one of those imaginatively-named California towns, like “Ivanhoe, California” or “Tarzana, California.”

Once I had established that title and the book’s format, I figured I could expand on that approach. So when I started working on my next book, I decided to turn it into a series.

The second book, Still Lifes, U.S.A. is a series of photographs I took during a five week cross-country road trip in 2016. I basically retraced my very first U.S. visit, a Greyhound bus trip in 1981 from New York to California. During that first trip, I was so overwhelmed by the experience, I rarely took out my camera. I was a novice photographer and felt unprepared for the challenge to do justice to the visual overload of the American environment. So 35 years later, in 2016, I set out to retrace the same Greyhound bus route, this time with camera in hand and a determination to record the experience.

IDEA: Why did you leave the United States and choose the streets of Tokyo for your third book in the series, Still Lifes, Tokyo?

RvdL: I’ve always been attracted to Japanese culture and aesthetics, and Tokyo in particular. I love the work of artists such as Hokusai, Ozu, Ando, Murakami, Moriyama, Yokoo, and I devour every issue of IDEA. Much of what I know about Tokyo is through the work of these artists. Then, a few years ago, I decided to book a trip to Tokyo to experience it first hand. I wanted to see all those Ozu trains and Ando buildings and Moriyama alleyways in real life.

Since I’d never been to Tokyo before, I was completely overwhelmed of course. But this time I felt much more confident as a photographer. I was there for three weeks by myself exploring Shibuya and Shinjuku. I just walked around, day and night, without much of a plan, photographing, just observing and trying to draw inspiration from what I saw around me, and by being “actively receptive” as the photographer Henry Wessel called it.

This was a different experience from when I’m photographing California, where I’ve lived for over 35 years, and which I’ve studied on many levels. I usually know something about whatever I’m pointing my camera at in California.

In Tokyo I often had no idea what I was looking at. For instance, I couldn’t read the billboards and the street advertising, of which there is an overabundance. And everything is crammed together and on top of each other, with narrow streets and everywhere utilities running overhead. It’s a beautiful urban chaos. Very different from California which is wide open and spacious with lots of emptiness in between. Visually, Tokyo is like New York on steroids, and that’s what accounts for the exuberance in the photographs I took there. To strengthen that, I paired the photographs by placing an image on the verso and recto on each spread in the book. It’s something I’ve not done in the other books which is why those seem more quiet and pensive. But Tokyo was such a visual overload, it’s so dense and layered, I wanted to convey that in both the individual images and the layout of the book without laying it on too thick.

IDEA: You spent three weeks in Shibuya and Shinjuku. What impressed you most?

RvdL: One thing that struck me when I was walking around is that nobody paid any attention to me. Nobody asked me what I was doing or told me to get lost. In the United States, when I’m photographing, people often stare at me, and ask me what I’m doing, or honk their horns when they drive by. I never photograph people, but they're often suspicious of what I'm pointing my camera at. It’s gotten me in trouble a number of times. Maybe I was just lucky, but I never encountered that kind of hostility in Tokyo.

There are so many things that impressed me about Tokyo – the kind and considerate people, the incredible public transportation system, the delicious food and cozy restaurants everywhere, the absence of police and the relative feeling of safety anywhere you go, the architecture and wonderful cladding of buildings all so perfectly executed down to the smallest details, the small baskets next to restaurant tables to place your belongings in, the amazing museums, the contrast of the historical and the modern... I just absolutely loved the vibe in Tokyo.

One reason I focussed on those two wards is because of the work of Araki and Moriyama, who did a lot of photography there, and who’s work I admire. And it’s not just their photographs I like, but the fact that they publish so much of their work in book or magazine format. Obviously I’m very attracted to that aspect of their work. And it was super exciting to walk around in the environment that I’d seen in so many of their photographs.

IDEA: For the early issues of the Emigre, the theme was “The Magazine That Ignores boundaries.” We can recognize the locality of each street from your photos. Is there any connection between your magazine editing and your photo book editing?

RvdL: Maybe it’s not so much about editing as it is about attitude. The original idea behind Emigre magazine was to feature the work of artists who had lived in multiple countries and how this multi-culturalism had influenced their work. Later, as the magazine transformed into a magazine about graphic design, the connection to the name Émigré (Emigrant) related more to the idea of standing on the outside looking in. As graphic designers, simply by the way we worked, by ignoring boundaries, by creating our own products, by forgoing clients, by questioning the established rules of design, we always situated ourselves outside the main stream of design.

And in photography too I feel like an outsider. As an image maker what matters most to me is the final image and how it appears in the books I publish. I use a digital camera, which some people say has little to do with photography. I don’t shoot in RAW format, and I’m not interested in making photographic prints. You could make the claim that I’m not really a photographer at all. I like making photo books which concerns itself with a different set of requirements. In that respect, what I currently do is perhaps still closer to editing Emigre magazine than being a photographer.

IDEA: Please tell us about the format, design and typeface for this book.

RvdL: As a graphic designer, with a book like this, where I can do whatever I want, it’s tempting to go overboard and become heavy-handed. I was very self-conscious about that. With the Still Lifes series I desperately wanted the photos to be the focal point and for the design to take a back seat. I needed the design to be of high quality in small details.

So I ended up with a rather straightforward layout. When I started out, I went through dozens of different layouts, and I experimented with different sizes of photos, and combining bleed images and cropped images, and various texts, you name it. There are all kinds of ways of laying out and sequencing photos to force relationships between pictures and create narratives. But in the end it all felt very contrived. And since I spent so much time carefully selecting and composing each single image to be just right, I decided it was better to show them unencumbered and to let them stand on their own, one image per page, all the same size, with as little graphic interference as possible.

And I’ve picked this small postcard-size format because I like the informal quality of postcards and in general prefer the intimacy of small photographic images. By the way, these pictures are not reproductions of photographic prints. Their appearance in these books, as printed halftones, is their primary destination and manifestation.

In general I prefer seeing my pictures printed in books or catalogs, rather than exhibited in galleries. With books I can imagine the reader at home, sitting in a comfortable chair, and closely studying the images sequentially, or perhaps standing in a bookstore, flipping through the publication back to front. It’s an effortless activity suited for solitary, up-close enjoyment of the images. That’s how I prefer the reader to experience my work.

Also, I like seeing these images printed as halftones. Halftone dots and the process of offset printing add a unique visual quality that is particularly suited to photography. The halftone process was practically invented to accommodate the reproduction of photographs. Other art, such as oil painting, when reproduced in four color halftone, never looks as good as the original. This is because the material of oil on canvas is the very essence of a painting. Any reproduction falls short of the original, because much goes missing. But a digital photograph has no intrinsic manifestation, it’s an ethereal file of computer data. So a halftone print from a digital photo file is the original physical form. And while an offset printed halftone image is often considered to be a secondary form of reproduction, in this case, it is as authentic as any original print.

The typeface used in all three Still Lifes books is Alda. It was designed by Berton Hasebe in 2008 and it was officially released in 2011 by our type foundry, Emigre Fonts. Hasebe developed it while he was enrolled in the Master Course type design program at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, the same school that I graduated from in 1979. Alda is a wonderful design that carries its Dutch design roots on its sleeve. That typeface fit perfectly with the high-quality-in-small-details design approach of the book.

IDEA: What do you think about your publication activities?

RvdL: I’ve mentioned earlier my preference for books as a primary vehicle to show photography, with gallery exhibits given secondary consideration. I enjoy the enterprise of publishing books, and my objective is to carve out a space between the self-published, hand-made artists’ book, and the commercial trade book. Artists’ books are intended for a small, initiated audience, and are often expensive and difficult to obtain, while the commercial trade books are meant for a broader audience and are affordable and more readily available. I’d like to explore the area where the two overlap.

This requires some compromise. The materials and processes of design, proofing, printing, and binding, and the collaboration with the various professionals involved in making a trade book, can be limiting as economic considerations often lead to cookie cutter solutions and middle-of-the-road answers. Even so, while much of the process of trade book publishing today is automated, the result is still a miracle of human invention and technological ingenuity and can be a work of art.

Working with a trade book publisher also requires special accommodation. The commercial concerns of a trade publisher, while often in conflict with the more esoteric intentions of the artist, need to be considered, as the work is a collaboration and wouldn’t exist without their knowhow.

Finally, to have the book distributed and displayed in a bookstore where it is surrounded by books of all kinds couldn’t be more satisfying. If it’s the artists’s responsibility to make their work public, then there’s no better way to do this than by publishing the work in book form and to have it for sale at an affordable price in bookstores everywhere.

IDEA: Please tell us about the booklet DREAM.

RvdL: The DREAM booklet came together very quickly, almost like in an actual dream. It’s comprised of a number of photographs that I’ve been working on for the past year or so that were originally shot in color, but ended up looking much better in black and white. While I was experimenting, I ended up manipulating the images much more than I usually do, to a point where they look like they were taken with a pinhole camera, which they were not. But that black and white pinhole-camera look, with the darkened periphery, combined with the incongruent images, it feels like a dream sequence to me. It’s what I see in my mind’s eye when I think of my trips into the California hinterland.

So with the DREAM booklet I’ve gone much further with manipulating the images. In general I do a fair amount of color and contrast corrections and manipulations. Sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically, but always within the realm of believability. The great thing about photography is that there’s room to move within this realm because we have a tendency to believe that photographic images tell the truth, even when they don’t. Of course there’s nothing pure about photography. The only purity that matters is the intention of the artist. And my intention is to make compelling images. Usually I can’t help myself when I open Photoshop and start adjusting, because I always remember the scenes differently from what the camera recorded, especially regarding color. So I modify, until the images comply with what I remember or what I want them to look like.

With DREAM I’m also being a little bit more adventurous with the layout of the images, moving away from the static approach of the Still Lifes books by cropping, combining and bleeding the images off the edge. Actually, there are pages in Emigre magazine #1 and #2 from the mid 80s showing some of my early photographs that resemble the layouts of the DREAM booklet. So it looks like I’ve come full circle.