Rfotofolio is pleased to share the work and words of Norm Snyder.
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I was born in Windsor, Ontario and grew up and got my formal education in southeastern Michigan. I grew up in the fifties and sixties, and was lucky enough to have grown up at a time—and in a town—that exposed me to a wide range of people, of ideas and of cultural change. It shaped my thinking and allowed me to move toward being the person that I would eventually become.
How did you get started in photography?
I had been exposed to lots of visual images, and I guess I was a visual learner, before I was aware of what that was. I had an uncle who was a photographer, and who had a darkroom in the basement, that I remember exploring when I was eleven or twelve years old. I found a box of prints . . . was fascinated, and asked how he got them. He took me out the next day with a Rolliecord he’d had since during World War Two and I shot photos of a church at sunset though the “arms” of a steam shovel. The next day, with his direction, I processed the film and made my first print. It was magic. I’ve never tired of it since.
Which photographers and other artists do you admire?
I remember admiring the photos of a photographer who had a series of photos in Life Magazine in the 1950s, well before I knew who he was, or what a photo essay might be. They were a series of photos of a mental institution in Haiti. It was the work of Gene Smith, even though I wouldn’t know who he was for years, they have stayed with me—the power of the photos individually and separately, until today.
Would you share with us an image [not your own] that has stayed with you over time?
W. Eugene Smith’s photo “Madness,” from the series of photos of Haiti. If I could choose a second, it would be the photo of the miners from Wales, Three generations of Welsh miners. I think. The eyes . . . both are still haunting.
Do you have a story about one of your images you would like to share?
I suppose it would be a photo I shot that was part of a story on a free clinic in the projects in Detroit, that a bunch of folks at the Medical School set up as an adjunct to a breakfast program that the Black Panthers were running. A small child, maybe four or five, was getting a vaccination and I was trying to get a shot of the work that was going on. What I ended up with was a photo of a small child who was terrified. It reminded me to pay closer attention.
Please tell us more about your process and what the perfect day is for you?
Probably shooting photos of jazz musicians. First of all, it wouldn’t be daytime, ‘cause everyone would be sleeping then. It would probably be midnight or one in the morning, with folks who showed up to play, an audience that was engaged and not sitting on their hands. They’d be listening, laughing, exhorting the musicians or just letting them know that what there were doing was something that made them feel good. Capturing those moments, the feel of the sound, the ability of folks to seem to read one another’s thoughts—to finish one another’s phrases musically—to respond to one another and to the audience—and the audience to them—to be able to capture that in two dimensions—nothing like it.
Is there one thing that you wish people would stop doing when it comes to the creative process or in the art world?
To stop trying to invent a code to talk about things that one either “gets” without a lot of qualification, or they don’t. No secret language—no metaphors that only other art critics [music critics, too—‘cause it’s the same thing] understand. Does the image make the observer feel something? Is it the same thing the artist intended? I’m not at all certain that it matters. Some of my photographs, particularly the images taken on the “street” are ambiguous. They succeed if the folks looking at them feel something—not necessarily what I experienced. If I can convey my own experience, that’s great. If it happens because of the image, with no language—just the image—then it works, for me. No explanation necessary.
What challenges do you face as an artist?
We are in a society that is changing. Photography—no, imaging—is changing. We are entering a time during which everyone has a camera/phone with them, or is wearing one on their glasses or pinned to their shirt or blouse. On the one hand, folks are paranoid about their privacy being invaded—even though their privacy doesn’t any longer exist. This challenges me to refine my vision—to find a language visually that will be more succinct: How is this photo of my morning scrambled eggs, or of the scene on the way to the coffee shop different from everyone else’s breakfast? Can the viewer “taste” this?/smell this/experience this, based on a two-dimensional representation? We are in an era in which so many images are being generated that I can only remind myself of what the Canadian science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon opined: “90 percent of everything is crap.” Probably including my observations.
If you could spend a day with another photographer living or passed, who would it be?
Gene Smith in the jazz loft; Eugene Atget on a river bank; E.J. Bellocq in Storyville.
How do you view this time in the history of photography?
I guess it’s obvious from my comments about my own challenges that the sheer volume of images produced and presented in a variety of media, no doubt with the advent of digital imaging, poses a challenge. Photographers have been trying—sometimes succeeding—to “capture” moments in time. The moments themselves have always been evanescent. The invention of photography and the means to move from the camera obscura to media that would preserve these moments was remarkable, and provided a means to transport the viewer through time, back to those moments, as well as, to excite their fantasies about those images. The digital age poses challenges because of the potential volatility of the media involved. Sublimation is the evaporation of a solid directly to a gas. I worry that some of my own images [the ones that avoid the pitfalls of Sturgeon’s law] will disappear into the ether, and that their meaning, the moments, will be lost. The author Walter Miller, in the novel, Canticle for Leibowitz, presents a monk hard at work in a monastery illuminating a manuscript written by the prophet Leibowitz, which the reader only later learns is a butcher receipt. At least it’s still around.
How do you overcome a creative block?
No formula, although I’ve tried to find one. I continue to do that. I listen to music that is unfamiliar, go to places I’ve not been. Take pictures.
What do you hope the viewer takes from your images?
Anything they want, anything they feel, anything they see.
How does your art affect the way you see the world?
Working with images—negatives, and now files, takes me back into moments I’ve experienced, and revisiting these sometimes changes the way I’ve experienced the past. The changeability of my vision of the past informs my view of the future.
Thank you Norm for sharing your work. Tomorrow on Rfotofolio The Norm Snyder Gallery.
To learn more about the photography of Norm Snyder please visit his site at, Norm Snyder Photo.