Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Bruce Haley Interview - A look at his new book SUNDER

Bruce Haley, a Robert Capa Gold Medal Recipient, will premier his latest book SUNDER this Friday in New York City. This is Haley's first monograph produced directly from digital files. 

Terrance Reimer and Jeff Grandy of West Coast Imaging produced these files for Haley, working in close collaboration. We recently had a chance to talk with Haley about the book, the experiences photographing it, and preparing it for press.

Bruce Haley is the recipient of the Robert Capa Gold Medal, one of the most prestigious photography awards in the world. Haley received this honor for his coverage of Burma‘s bloody ethnic civil war.

This self-taught photographer with a military and police background began his career in 1988, covering Afghanistan‘s mujahideen resistance to Soviet occupation; shortly thereafter the legendary Howard Chapnick accepted Haley into Black Star, one of the industry‘s premiere photo agencies. With a primary focus upon war and its aftermath, Haley photographed areas of conflict in Asia, Africa, Europe and the former Soviet Union. His images (from Burma) of a grisly execution by stabbing shocked the world and engendered much controversy and discussion. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize by the Baltimore Sun in 1992, for helping to break the story of the famine in Somalia. Over the course of 20+ years in the field, Haley has expanded his subject matter well beyond the battlefield; working across multiple camera formats, he has explored topics as diverse as the Bolivian altiplano, Eastern Europe‘s persecuted Roma (Gypsies), the decaying infrastructure of Soviet-era industry, and the timber and extractive industries in the American West.

Haley‘s photographs have appeared in books, magazines and newspapers worldwide, as well as in corporate publications and on CD, video and DVD covers; his clients include Time, Life, U.S. News and World Report, The London Sunday Times Magazine, Stern, Paris Match, GEO, Aperture, Esquire, Georgia-Pacific and the Chevron Corporation. Numerous magazines and newspapers have profiled Haley and his work, among them American PHOTO, (French) PHOTO, B&W, and UTNE Reader. His limited-edition portfolio, entitled 13 Million Tons of Pig Iron, was #1 on the Photo-Eye Bestseller List.  In addition to publications, Haley‘s exhibition prints have been shown in museums and galleries all over the world.

WCI: Tell us a little about how your monograph SUNDER, that was photographed between 1994 and 2002 in the former USSR and around the Iron Curtain countries, was first initiated and the circumstances that brought you to this hauntingly beautiful landscape.

BH:  Being born in 1957 means that a sizable portion of my life to date was spent under the “Cold War” cloud:  the space race, the arms race, etc. etc.  I had traveled with the mujahideen in the mountains of Afghanistan as they fought the Russians, and had also covered the violent break-up of the former Yugoslavia.  But in 1994 I was invited to do something that was a bit different for me at the time:  to accompany a delegation from British Parliament, Lords and Ladies and etc., on a fact-finding mission to Nagorno Karabakh.  Armenia and Azerbaijan had waged a ferocious war over this region, and had recently signed a cease-fire agreement (interestingly enough, this same cease-fire is still in effect 16 years later, with no permanent resolution  -  and there have been violations of the agreement and casualties during this entire time).

I went along with the Members of Parliament for their week-long trip, and then used my official paperwork and access to stay in the region for an additional six weeks and work on my own.  Since so much of my work up to this point had been conflict-based, it was quite different for me to photograph a quiet period, a time when people were trying to put their lives back together and establish some sense of normalcy for the sake of their children.  The resilience of the human spirit never ceases to amaze me!

There are nine photographs from this particular body of work in the new book, and they are the earliest, chronologically, so I suppose we can consider that trip to be the starting point and origin of SUNDER.  After that trip I spent a great deal of time in the former Iron Curtain countries, with a particular emphasis upon Romania.  I was fascinated by damn near everything, and my working method (if you can call it that) was a fickle combination of targeted subject matter and “wander around aimlessly and see what you find, or what finds you, or who asks you in their door and insists on pouring massive amounts of home-brewed alcohol down your throat.”  Mostly it was the latter, I confess...

The project turned into an 8-year maelstrom of wonder and fascination:  I’m on my way to photograph a pilgrimage in Slovakia, but from the window of the train I see a massive abandoned factory that looks like something out of a sci-fi film, so I grab all my stuff and hop out at the next stop and backtrack to find it and shoot it...  this leads to me making specific trips in 2000 and 2002 just to photograph industrial sites with my Xpan...  or in the early days I was in a marketplace when a group of Kalderash women in their colorful traditional clothing came swirling through the crowd, and I was absolutely transfixed by the way they moved...  I knew then and there that I had to make a concerted effort to photograph the Roma (Gypsies), to find encampments that would welcome me in and allow me to shoot in a relaxed, candid, fly-on-the-wall manner...  it wasn’t at all easy to find such conditions, and I devoted much of my work in 1996 and 1997 to it, but it did happen.

So a great deal of 1994 - 2002 went by in a blur  -  my son Brendan was born in 1995, so I was a new father, and all the while I was working on what would ultimately become a photographic “octopus”  -  vaguely labelled my “post-communist project,” it grew and grew and sprouted new arms and went off in different directions, all the while ostensibly staying under that “post-communist” umbrella...  by 2003, however, I was ready for something else, and started turning my attention to the American West...  but the “post-communist project” had been a helluva ride..!


WCI:  To my knowledge, this monograph is your first project utilizing digital scanning of your black and white film to generate press ready files for the production of the book.  Can you share your personal thoughts and observations on this process while working and collaborating with WCI.  Were there any pleasant surprises along the way?

BH:  Yes, it is the first time I’ve used digital for a project of this size and importance.  But working with WCI was wonderful -  from the initial drum scans by Jeff Grandy, to working intensely with master printer Terrance Reimer.  I really couldn’t have asked for more  -  Terrance was really into making the project look exactly like I wanted it to look, and we worked side-by-side, over the phone, through e-mail, and he was always ultra-responsive to every little thing I mentioned...  so all in all, it was a great experience!  I’ve already finished another big project, and WCI is getting that one as well  -  so that should say something about my overall satisfaction!

And yes, there were definitely some pleasant surprises along the way  -  with a number of images we were able to draw out or hold certain small, fine details that I had never been able to hold in a traditional wet darkroom, details that enhanced the overall impact of the image, so that was a major plus to working in this manner.


WCI:  Spending eight years with this project made for an enormous collection of imagery to pull from during the editing process for the monograph SUNDER.  Can you discuss or share your insight to the editing process you embrace for such a large project?  Do you work or collaborate with any other visual editors to assist in this creative endeavor?  For you, what resonates most during the editing of your own work?

BH:  With this project there was a massive amount of material to draw from, and it covered quite a broad range of subject matter as well; and to make things even more difficult, it was shot in multiple camera formats and films, depending upon how I felt like depicting the subject I happened to be shooting at the time.  I used 35mm, I used panoramic, I used fine film, I used very grainy film, etc.; about the only constant was that it was all shot in black and white.  And while shooting in this manner works just fine for me on a day to day basis, it presents a different dynamic when it’s time to edit it into book form, into a sequence that has resonance and meaning and flow.

I’m sort of a “lone wolf” type of guy, and when I get an idea about how something should be, I stick to it  -  the end result is either pretty much what I had envisioned, or I don’t allow it to see the light of day.  When I first thought of putting this book together, I wanted to do exactly what I just described:  mix up a wide range of subject matter, mix up the 35mm with the panoramics, mix up the fine film with the grainy film.  However, I had a number of well-known publishers and bookmakers tell me not to do it that way;  they said that I needed a separate book for the industrial images, another book for the Roma (Gypsy) images, etc. etc..   However, I disagreed  -  life isn’t like that, it isn’t neatly compartmentalized, and when you travel you don’t just see one thing  -  you see this whole vast array of people and places, beauty next to ugliness, simplicity next to complexity...  you’re shooting inside the most devastated, polluted industrial site imaginable, and then you’re shooting in an unspoiled mountain forest...  you’re shooting a group of Roma living next to a garbage dump, and then you’re shooting a beautiful young girl standing next to a river at dusk, with the most magnificent line of trees on the far bank...  I wanted my edit for the book to reflect that, and not simply focus upon one type of subject matter; not all bad, not all good, just life.........

I was very fortunate in that the co-publishers of this book,
Charta Art Books ( )
and the Daylight Foundation ( )
believed from the start in the total package that I had put together  -  my edit, my sequence, my title, the people I brought on board for the texts, etc.  -  and so we just took what I had and ran with it.  I had already brought Clint Eastwood and his wife Dina on board, I had Andrei Codrescu’s fantastic essay already in the can, the poet Kirsten Rian had written a wonderful piece for the book...  so none of that ever changed  -  I told the contributors at the very beginning that their piece would stay exactly how they wanted it to be, with no editorial meddling, or we wouldn’t do the book.  Andrei Codrescu said that he didn’t like to write about photography, that he had been wanting to write a sequel essay to his book The Hole in the Flag (about the Romanian revolution), and he thought that this would be a great venue for such a piece.  I told him to go ahead and write it exactly like he had been wanting to write it, and that’s how it would be published.  So in the end, what I had put together as a concept and a package, what I had wanted this particular book to be, is exactly what the purchasers of SUNDER will hold in their hands.

As for the actual edit and sequence of images that ended up in the book, this came about over a period of years.  Much of the work had already been “road-tested,” in that it had been published in magazines or shown in exhibitions, etc., so I already had some idea of what I thought had legs, what other people responded to, and so on; in this respect you are at somewhat of an advantage when editing older work (on the other hand, the disadvantage is that you as the photographer might also be tired of seeing photographs that you’ve been printing and showing for ten or fifteen years; you must then struggle against your jaded eye).  So when it came down to this final book edit, there was already a core group of “keepers” that I knew had to be included; other images came in and out, in and out, in various configurations, and then I’d get to the point where I couldn’t even look at any of it anymore, and have to leave it for a while.  Then one day, not long before the actual publishing process really ramped up, I hit what seemed to me to be the best edit I could glean from that huge body of work, while still keeping it at my target of 55 images, and that’s exactly what’s in SUNDER.  No one else wanted to change it either, so there it is...


WCI:  What sets your work apart from other photographers?

BH:  That’s not for me to say.......

WCI:  How would you describe your photography?

BH:  I wouldn’t...

WCI:  Please list the cameras and lenses you use:

BH:  I still use the first camera I ever bought - a Nikon FM2.  One of the best cameras ever made.  That and a 35mm lens is about all I need in the field, really.  But I also have a Nikon F4, which replaced the F3 I had that went swimming in Burma.  I have a Hasselblad Xpan, with the 45mm and 90mm lenses (although I never use the 90).  I have a Linhof Tech IV, a Speed Graphic, and probably some others that I’m forgetting.  However, the camera I’ve used for my most recent projects is the Tomiyama Art Panorama 624, with a Nikkor SW120mm lens on it; I also had the body customized so that it has front rise.  That extreme 4:1 aspect ratio is daunting, and very difficult to compose properly, but when it works it’s awesome!

WCI:  What do you like about working with West Coast Imaging?

BH:  (See above, in the main interview)

WCI:  Why should other photographers use West Coast Imaging?

BH:  Bottom line:  because they LISTEN, and they CARE, and they know their stuff...!


WCI:  What inspires you?

As trite as it may sound, the world inspires me, life inspires me!  I’m still as excited about the medium of photography as I was the day I started out, hoping to make my living this way, back in 1988.  Everywhere I look, all the time while I’m driving, I see something I would like to photograph; the only time I’m not mentally composing images is when I’m asleep! I’ll be 54 next month, so I’m more aware of my mortality, and that in a certain sense I’m racing the clock  -  there is still so much I want to do with the camera!  The sense of urgency keeps growing...

I have no background in art or photography  -  I’m completely self-taught.  My photographic education consisted of buying an all-manual camera (my Nikon FM2, which I still use) and a couple of battered books:  Kodak’s The Joy of Photography and Kodak’s More Joy of Photography -  that’s it...!  And the only advice I’ve ever gotten about my work was in late 1988, when Howard Chapnick accepted me into the Black Star agency and told me the famous Robert Capa mantra: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

However, long before I became interested in photography I was buying, borrowing, and studying every book on classical art that I could get my hands on  -  so when I eventually did come to photography I was already well grounded in formal composition, perspective, light, chiaroscuro, etc. etc.  In my mind this has helped me immensely; in fact, I probably still spend more time with my painting books than I do with my photography books.  I have a large collection, with emphasis in such areas as the Pre-Raphaelites, the Barbizon School, the French Rural Tradition, and the Symbolists; William Blake, Samuel Palmer, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Jean-Francois Millet, Jules Breton, George Inness, Charles Burchfield, Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth  -  my day is lessened if I don’t spend time with these great artists!

In photography, I would say that my three main sources of inspiration are Josef Sudek, Albert Renger-Patzsch, and Paul Strand.  If I were to make it a Top 5 list, I would add Frederick Evans and Andre Kertesz.  No doubt because of my age and time in the medium, I appreciate photographers who stayed vital and made strong work over multiple decades, who explored a broad range of subject matter and didn’t fall into some comfortable rut (which is one of the pitfalls of a long life spent in the arts!).  That, to me, is very important.

There are two book that I recommend for every photographer:  Why People Photograph by Robert Adams, and Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth:  A Conversation with Andrew Wyeth by Thomas Hoving.  Both are inexpensive and easy to find.  And don’t dismiss the Wyeth book simply because he is a painter  -  there is tremendous insight to be gleaned from a close reading of this volume.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home