Plastikcomb magazine

Interview by Dado Queiroz. Published in 2023.

Dado Queiroz: Your goal of photographing the whole of California, detailed in Emigre’s 2021 booklet-as-type-catalog Tally, gives an idea of the intensity of your interest in that state. Can you elaborate on the reasons that brought you to move there, all the way from the Netherlands, as well as what prompted you to stay?

Rudy VanderLans: When I was growing up in Holland, much of what I was drawn to in terms of music, literature, art, sports etc., originated in the USA, and in particular California. I read John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath at an early age, and Kerouac’s Big Sur, and I adored watching westerns and was fascinated by the backdrops, the western landscapes, which I learned were mostly shot in California, and which couldn’t be more different than the Dutch environment that I grew up in. I was intrigued reading the stories of artists like David Hockney moving to California from England, and Neil Young who moved there from Canada, and Ed Ruscha’s moving from Oklahoma to California, which generated his famous Twentysix Gasoline Stations booklet. So many creative people moved to California and flourished. So in 1981, when I was 25, I moved to California on a student visa to study photography at the University of California at Berkeley, and quickly realized this was the place I was meant to be. It immediately felt like home to me. I met my wife here, Zuzana Licko, who had also come to California from elsewhere (Slovakia). Shortly after, in 1984, we launched Emigre and never looked back.

DQ: What drew you to study photography? Was there something beyond the borders of graphic design, which you studied at the KABK in The Hague, that you were missing or longing for, akin to the allure of Californian culture calling from the far end of another continent?

RvdL: After KABK, I spent three years as a junior designer at a number of design studios working mostly on corporate identities, the kind of work KABK had properly trained me for, and I realized that kind of work wasn’t really for me. So I decided to go back to school to create a break of sorts, to look for other opportunities within design. While on vacation in California in 1980, I applied to the grad program in design at UC Berkeley. But by the time I was admitted, the program was dissolved, and they asked me if I wanted to study photography instead. Since my application to study at Berkeley had as much to do with my wish to live in California as it did with sharpening my chops as a designer, I had no problem switching majors, and I happily entered the graduate program at Berkeley and focussed all my attention on studying photography. So here I was, in the place I always wanted to be, and I was able to walk around all day and photograph it. I was in heaven.

DQ: Your images seem to emanate a sense of introspective contemplation—many times of subtle markers of human activity—that, if I’m not completely missing the mark, pose an interesting contrast to the hard analytical data presented in Tally. Was this intentional? How intuitive is your photographing process?

RvdL: My images are pretty intuitive in that I don’t work with a preconceived idea of what they should look like. As I pointed out in Tally, I allow myself to be receptive to the world around me without theorizing or judging too much. I let myself be influenced and inspired by the circumstances and moods I find myself in. So yes, there is a contrast between this free flowing approach to picture making and the analytical data in Tally, but that’s not intentional. Tally is the result of my interest in archiving. Years ago we donated the entire Emigre design archive to Letterform Archive in San Francisco, and I supplied them with the cataloguing data. I spent months compiling all the pertinent background data on every item in our archive. There’s something very satisfying in doing that. By creating a record for each artifact and filing it into a system that’s searchable and retrievable, seems to defy the ephemeral nature of design. It grounds the artifact in permanence, gives it provenance, so to speak. There’s so much work being created these days and much of it is impermanent, here today gone tomorrow. And because much of what we create today is digital, there’s no record of a process, of how we arrived at what we do, where it came from, etc. I wanted to go against all that, especially with my photography, and consider my picture taking to be more than just a fleeting moment of interest. There’s also just the practical aspect of archiving my pictures. My overarching project, which is almost encyclopedic in scope, is to create a portrait of California in the first half of the 21st century. And it’s easy to lose track of where I’ve been and what I’ve recorded so far. So just for my own sanity, I had to start organizing the images in a searchable database.

DQ: That's very interesting . Emigre magazine itself documented notorious shifts in graphic design practice, during what was arguably one of the most exciting times in the history of that discipline, namely from mid '80s to mid '00s. Was that how you saw it at the time, through this documenting lens?

RvdL: Not initially. When you find yourself at the start of some kind of historical era, it’s not immediately clear that it’s anything special or whether it will last. But that particular time, as you point out, turned out to have quite an impact on design. It was a convergence of the introduction of a new design and production tool, i.e. the Macintosh, a growing interest in postmodernism and design theory, a renewed interest in the vernacular, and a flourishing DIY movement. It all lead to a lot of questioning of graphic design; what it stood for, how it was practiced, who the gate keepers were, what it could be, etc. But while the profession was going through major changes, very little of it was covered by the regular design press at the time. And if it was covered, it was done by writers who were not really as deeply involved in it as we were. So I started asking a lot of questions by doing interviews and publishing essays by fellow designers and design educators who were equally aware of what was going on, and over time it became clear that we were writing our own history so to speak. We found ourselves in the middle of it all, and Emigre became this chronicle of a particularly exciting time in graphic design.

DQ: Going back to Tally, there we also learn that, for you to reach the nearly 500 photos of California printed in books so far, thousands more were taken. That ratio is one piece of information I missed from the booklet, hopefully not by overlooking it. Do you know that number? If not, what would be your best guess?

RvdL: No, you didn’t overlook that, and that’s an interesting bit of data I should have included. That number is probably around 15,000 pictures. And I don’t know what that says about my qualifications as a photographer, but ever since digital cameras came on the market, there's no longer a financial need to make every shot count. This sort of freed up my approach and take chances with shots I otherwise might not have tried.

DQ: Still in the topic of stats, how many pictures on average do you take of the same subject?

RvdL: I take anywhere between one and as many as 20 pictures of the same subject. It all depends. Quite a few pictures that I’ve published are taken while I’m driving, so that’s usually one picture per subject. But the success rate of those being any good is very low, because when I do that I’m not looking through the viewfinder, I just point and shoot. Then there’s a fair amount of pictures where I park the car and shoot through my open side window. My car is fairly low to the ground, and I really like the angle I get from that position which is very different from when I’m walking around. But when I sit in my car shooting pictures, I often feel like I’m casing the neighborhood. So I shoot quickly and take three or four shots and get out of there. And sometimes, when I find a particularly cool spot to photograph, and I feel comfortable, I can spend 15 or 20 minutes at a scene walking around and shooting from 20 different angles and do various crops. Curiously, whenever I think I’ve found a great subject to photograph, and give myself all the time in the world and cover all the angles, the success rate of those is hardly any better than when I shoot randomly while driving. Anyway, it’s a great idea to add those numbers to my data base. I hope you realize you just gave me a couple of weeks worth of extra work!

DQ: Haha sorry about that. What makes a photograph “publishable,” to use your own term?

RvdL: I was afraid you would ask that question. In Tally I tried to weasel around the issue by following photographer Robert Adams’s suggestion, who understands how difficult it is to explain pictures, and who said “The best way to avoid talking about the pictures is to talk about their subjects.” That was the idea behind Tally, to give as much information about the background of the pictures, the where and when and how, without actually saying much about the pictures themselves. I don’t pretend to do anything more than making pictures of California. That’s my subject. But for any photo to get published it needs to bring something unique to the project in order to build this comprehensive portrait of California that I’m trying to create. Like each picture is a unique piece, a small slice of the Golden State, that needs to fit into a huge 3,000 piece puzzle depicting all of California, warts and all, seen through the lens of my insider/outsider perspective. And in the end, I’m not sure if it’s art, documentary, diary, critique, homage, or a chamber of commerce ad for the state of California. Perhaps it’s a little of each.

DQ: In your work, how do the formal and the symbolic relate? For instance, when we see a person or a covered car, is there any conceptual meaning you’re attributing to these subjects, any social commentary taking place, or is it more a visual affair, of purely capturing forms that render interesting bidimensional shapes?

RvdL: For sure it’s the formal aspect of making pictures that I enjoy the most. It’s what I hope will draw people into a picture in order to get to the content. But I’m not interested in making overtly political or conceptual statements with this particular project. That’s not what I set out to do. But I also realize that people will read into the images whatever they like. And when you point your camera at the California environment, like I do, it’s impossible not to have people read all kinds of things – political, personal, environmental – into the images. And that’s fine with me. You can’t really control the symbolic aspects of images. So when you see a covered car in my picture, or a curious juxtaposition, I’m probably asking the same questions as you are. What does this mean? What’s under that cover? Why take a picture of this? And the more questions a picture raises in my mind, the more publishable it becomes.

DQ: Could you share a bit of how was it to shoot in Japan? What were the most striking similarities, presuming there were any, between that and what one would expect to be a quite different experience of shooting the Californian landscape?

RvdL: My original idea for visiting Tokyo was to see how many traces of California’s influence on Japanese culture I could find there. And I found bars with names like Malibu, and an old poster for a reading by Charles Bukowski, and an abundance of Hollywood actors on billboards advertising whiskey or what not. But in the end it was the differences that really inspired me. Tokyo is extremely dense architecturally, and it’s super crowded. And there’s visual overload everywhere. And because it’s so dense, there’s no horizon. California, in contrast, is all horizon. It’s wide open, with lots of space, even in the big cities. The only similarity is that both environments feature a ubiquity of above-ground electrical utilities. The experience was different also due to my unfamiliarity with Japanese culture and language. When I’m photographing in California, like I said earlier, I’m very familiar with it’s environment, history, politics, culture, etc. I’ve lived here for over 40 years. So I usually understand very well what I’m looking at. But I have only a superficial knowledge of Tokyo's history and culture. Plus, I wasn’t able to read any of the signs and billboards that Tokyo is wallpapered with from top to bottom. I was truly an outsider. So most everything becomes rather abstract, which, for a formalist like myself, is a wonderful experience.

DQ: With smartphone camera technologies getting better each year, do you ever consider adopting it, besides or instead of a camera?

RvdL: Smartphone cameras are amazing. And there is a handful of images among my published pictures that I took with a smartphone. The reason I’m not using it more often is simple: I’m not really a smartphone person to begin with. I have a smartphone, but it’s not tethered to my hand. It’s often tucked away deep in my backpack, or I’ll leave it in my car when I go hunting for pictures so it doesn’t constantly distract me. I often go out without it. But it’s mostly familiarity. I’ve been shooting 35 mm with a regular camera all my life, and I really like the image proportions, and I enjoy seeing the world through the small viewfinder. And when you become familiar with a specific tool, you get better at using it and it becomes difficult to switch. I also like the heft of my Nikon D5100 reflex camera. It helps me somewhat when I’m trying to compose the image. It gives me slightly better stability and control. Although I’m sure I could get the same result with a smartphone if I would just use it more often.

DQ: Your only request for this feature was to not have your photographs printed larger than a postcard. Would you mind sharing your reasons for that preference, that shattered this designer’s dreams of blowing some of this incredible imagery up full bleed? It did create an interesting design challenge, though.

RvdL: To be exact, and this may shatter your designer dreams even further, it’s not just that I don’t want them to be larger, I also don’t want them to be smaller. I like the 6 x 4 postcard format. When I was growing up, I used to get the occasional tourist postcard from friends or acquaintances who traveled the U.S., and I just adored those images. And they were often poorly printed, which made them look even more exotic to me. I’ve saved them all in a shoe box and still look at them occasionally to figure out why I’m so attracted to them. Perhaps I was just imagining myself being there. And now that I live in California, I want to make sure, by seeing and photographing it, that I was right to like it so much. By the way, Stephen Shore wrote about this a great deal for his American Surfaces pictures. It’s also just a way to make things easier for myself. One less thing to have to decide. It’s a little bit like Massimo Vignelli using the same fonts over and over again. You get very good at it. I’m also not interested in making prints of my photographs, which is pretty much a kind of professional suicide. It wipes out any chance at galleries showing my work. It’s books and magazine features like this that I see as the perfect way to show my pictures. I realize that I’m erecting all kinds of made up guardrails to confine my creative workspace. And maybe that comes from working as a graphic designer where you usually have all kinds of restrictions set by a client or a budget or a particular printing process or the dictates of the message you are trying to convey. I enjoy working within confines. The only way I allow myself to print the images larger than postcard size, and I’ve done this in the past, is by literally blowing up the 6 x 4 halftone printed versions, showing the enlarged halftone dot pattern, which I’ve also done on the cover of this issue.

DQ: Rudy, thank you so much for your time and kindness. If I may ask you one last question: As the publisher of such an iconic magazine, are there any words you would like to share with Aaron and Thomas, who run PCM, and maybe also the wider net of the magazine’s contributors?

RvdL: None of us will get rich doing this, monetarily speaking. Most likely it will make us all poorer. But I’d like to think with PCM you’ll be leaving behind something authentic and from the heart that will show our humanity and enrich our lives and perhaps the lives of others. And that’s a beautiful thing.