Jim, please tell us a little about yourself. How did you get started in photography?
In 1951 or 1952, when I was eight or nine, my parents bought me a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera. It took twelve 2 1/4 square pictures on a roll of 620 film, was made out of Bakelite, and had a not-very-precise waist-level finder and a shutter release you pressed with your thumb. I loaded it with Super-XX film, and started making a pest of myself. It soon became obvious that drugstore processing was going to be way too expensive. My father purchased a rudimentary darkroom kit: a plastic Kodak developing tank with an apron that took a day to dry, a Kodak Tri-Chem pack (developer, stop, and fixer in tiny foil packets), a 15-watt light bulb that had been dipped in red dye, three plastic 5×7 trays, and a small contact printing frame. I’d load the film into the developing tank in a closet and develop and print in the bathroom, washing the film and prints in the sink. This didn’t exactly endear me to my mother, but I loved it.
A few years later, I was a freshman in high school. During spring break, I got the idea of taking pictures for the school newspaper. I talk my father into loaning me a Weston Master light meter and his folding Zeiss Ikon camera: 16 pictures on a roll of 120 film in a format that today we’d call 6×4.5. I presented myself to the newspaper staff, and they decided to give me a trial assignment. “Do you know how to develop film?”, they asked. “Sure,” I answered, thinking of all the rolls that I’d put through the Kodak tank. I went off to make the picture.
It’s a pretty boring shot: all the seniors who were elected to cum laude that year, lined up in two rows. I had no flash and no tripod. The light meter reading was really low. I opened the lens all the way, braced the camera on a table, guessed the distance (no rangefinder), and hoped for the best. It was 7:30 by the time I was done, and paste-up is supposed to start at 10:30. I headed for the school darkroom and found the chemicals, but the developing tank was like nothing I’d ever seen before. It said “Nikor” on it. The tank itself, the lid, and the cap seem to be easy enough to figure out, but what’s this stainless steel spiral? If I’d had any sense, I would’ve used an unexposed roll of film to teach myself how to load the reel, but I just turned out the lights and struggled for 10 minutes. After the film was fixed, I opened the tank to see how bad off I was. It was pretty bad; the film was stuck to itself in lots of places, and those places aren’t fixed. I finally found an intact frame. While the film was drying (I turned the drier thermostat up so high I’m lucky the film didn’t reticulate), I turned to the enlarger. I’d never seen one before. It turned out to be pretty easy to figure out. The prints were pretty soft; either I’d misjudged the distance or moved the camera. After the prints were washed, I figured out the print drier. I got the prints in on time and my career as a teenaged photojournalist had begun.
What photographers and artists inspire you?
Edward Hopper, Michael Kenna, Lee Friedlander, Frederic Church. Rod James, for This Green, Growing Land and what followed.
Did you have any special mentors?
I took workshops from some great photographers. John Sexton and Huntington Witherill were both especially influential in developing a sense of craft and esthetics. One of the hardest things about learning photography is knowing what a good print looks like; they both helped teach me.
What was the inspiration for your Staccato series?
I had been working on the Nighthawks series for about three years, and I was running out of places to make the images. I needed fairly large cities with enough areas with good photographic possibility that I didn’t have to return over and over to the same places, causing my subjects to notice me and making me bored and restless. I’d run through what I thought were the best U.S. cities, and was thinking about Mexico and Japan. I’d actually booked a trip to Guadalajara, only to back out when a spate of violence erupted. The big European cities are mostly darker at night than the ones in the U.S., and the storefronts typically less open to the street. Tokyo seemed like a good possibility, but the time zone shift is in the wrong direction, and I’d be going out to take pictures at midnight or one AM by body time.
I also was noticing that the blurry drive-by photographs like those in Nighthawks and This Green, Growing Land had gone from highly unusual to common in the larger photographic world, and I didn’t like being part of what might turn into a cliché.
One morning, I was lying in the bathtub ruminating about what to do when an idea popped into my brain. The thing I liked so well about This Green, Growing Land and Nighthawks was the ability to direct the viewer’s attention by judicious panning. I realized that there was another way to do that. Rather than making one semi-blurry picture, I could make a series of sharp pictures and composite them, achieving the same esthetic effect, but with a different look and a whole host of new possibilities. I thought immediately of Nude Descending a Staircase.
Over how long a time period did this evolve?
The idea for Staccato came in a flash, but the ideas behind the idea were developed over many years, starting with Alone in a Crowd, which used motion blur with a fixed camera, going to This Green, Growing Land, which used a moving platform to add depth and more control of sharpness, to Nighthawks, which moved the venue to cities and returned to the emotional themes of Alone in a Crowd. Because I knew the subject matter so well from Nighthawks, Staccato gelled almost immediately.
What is makes a good photographic day for you?
I don’t think in terms of days. I think in terms of whatever project I’m working on. If I can capture images true to what I’m looking for, that’s fine. If I can advance my vision of what the project’s about, that’s good. If I get an idea for some tangent to explore, that’s great within reason; too many tangents means none of them get properly developed.
In your eyes what makes a great piece of art?
I don’t know if I can make sense of such a large question. I can tell you what I’m looking for in my work. I want something pleasing to the eye. I’m looking for ambiguity; I want the image to reveal itself over a long time. I want a connection to my own emotions, and some prospect that the viewer will feel a similar connection.
Could you share some of your work process with us?
Making the exposures for Staccato is, to anyone else by me, excruciatingly boring. Drive around looking for subjects. Find a few. Work out a route that goes by them. Circle around until they’ve moved, noticed me and start waving, or until even I am bored. Then do it again, for hours and hours. I talk to the driver about what I’m doing so that he can position the car right, and to involve him in the process.
How do you go about editing your work?
I bring a trip’s worth of exposures into Lightroom. Thousands of images. I go through them all, marking the ones with no possibilities for deletion, and grouping the rest into stacks that will be composited. Then I export each stack to Photoshop and see if I can make something of it. If I can, I save it. If I can’t, I delete the stack from the disk. I keep the original exposures for each composite I like, and often go back and re-composite the stack to see if I can do better.
Could you tell us about your studio space?
It’s a mess. Computers, monitors, printers everywhere. And cables. Lots and lots of cables, coiled in unruly, spaghetti-like piles. Every so often, I’ll work for a morning to try to beat back the clutter, but the best I can do is fight the clutter to a draw.
Are there any photographic techniques or subjects that you haven’t explored but that you wish to do in the future?
I’ve found that thinking of something unrelated to what I’m working on doesn’t get me very far. I prefer to work on whatever I’m doing, and see where that leads me. It’s a series of small steps, not a big leap. Most of what I’m working on now has to do with portraying time.
Tell us about the upcoming show at the Center for Photographic Art.
I’ve admired Hal Eastman’s work for a long time. When the CPA called and said that they’d like to show our work together, I was overjoyed. We have different takes on motion. It’s been great fun working with the curators, Ilene Tuttle and Marty Manson. I’m always surprised by the work that curators pick, and I always learn something from the experience; it’s like seeing your work through other peoples’ eyes.
Here’s my take on the series in a nutshell:
Night in the city. Most people head home, to families, to the tube, to warm beds. Others go out. Recently, I’ve been out there myself. I take many sharp images from slightly different positions and incorporate them into a single composite, aligning the elements that I want sharp and letting the others fall where they may. This approach allows precise control over the important elements of the image, and makes for interesting patterns in the unaligned areas. Think of it as a few frames of a very short movie, all printed on top of one another. My goal is to capture a few moments that tell a story or, even better, that invite the viewer to supply one.
Jim thank you for sharing your art and your time.
To learn more about Jim Kasson please visit his site at, Jim Kasson.