Rfotofolio is pleased to share our interview with photographer John Loengard.
Please tell us about yourself and how you got started in photography?
In 1945, my father talked about buying a new camera now that World War II had ended. I was 11 years old and knew what cameras did, but all of a sudden making pictures became my desire. We lived in Manhattan and after Sunday dinner I ran to the corner drugstore to buy film for the box camera at home. What size, the man behind the counter asked? That was when I found that photography was not as simple as it seemed. I solved that problem easily enough and my father showed me how to develop film in the bathroom. I’ve been hooked ever since.
When I was fifteen, I thought I’d run out of subjects. I’d taken pictures of my family and friends and all the neighborhood landmarks. Then an editor on my school newspaper asked me to photograph the captain of the football team. After walking out on the practice field and asking the big man to kick a ball, I found that with a newspaper in my hip pocket (so-to-speak) I might go anywhere with a purpose and be welcomed.
I got my first assignment from Life magazine in 1956 when I was a senior in college. It was to photograph a tanker run aground on Cape Cod. The pictures were never used, but I continued to get assignments and joined the staff in 1961.
Still I felt I was not taking the pictures I wanted. I had not found my style. In 1964, a bloodless coup toppled the Brazilian government. A few days later, when there were no camera-worthy activities in downtown Rio de Janeiro, I recorded the placid beach. A middle aged gentleman walked toward me and I took his picture. When I saw a print in New York, I said to myself, “That’s your style.” What I meant was that the picture had a certain clarity that I embraced and could search for in any subject. I have done so ever since.
I was the only photographer at Life magazine who had the run of Life’s lab where I made my own prints. With film, making a good print is an important, possibly vital, piece of the process, but I’ve prepared a retrospective of my work that will be published here and in England this November entirely from the scans of my negatives without the traditional silver gelatin print. The book’s title is Moment by Moment / Photographs By John Loengard. Thames & Hudson is the publisher. It is my tenth book.
Which photographers and other artists work do you admire?
The photographers I admired in 1950 were Fritz Henle who had just published a book, Fritz Henle’s Rollie, that was filled with bold, strong compositions taken with a Rolleiflex camera, and Nat Fein, on the New York Herald-Tribune newspaper, who used his 4×5 Speed-Graphic like a small 35 mm camera, taking spontaneously composed pictures in natural light that showed what caught his eye.
In 1952, when I entered Harvard, Henri Cartier-Bresson published The Decisive Moment, and it became my guide. Weston Naef, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, would wrote thirty years later: “The most successful of Cartier-Bresson’s images in The Decisive Moment astonish and please us because of the sureness with which the subjects are removed from their actual context and given a new picture life.” That was my goal exactly.
It was a golden era. Other working photographers whom I admired then are Alfred Eisenstaedt, Margaret Bourke White, Leonard McCombe and W. Eugene Smith on the staff of Life magazine and Edward Weston, Robert Frank, Ernst Haas and Walker Evans. “Artistry”—that is, some resemblance to the graphic arts or painting or even the aesthetics of painting—was no longer the point. Their photographs stood on their own and resembled only themselves.
You asked me, if I could spend a day with any photographer, living or dead, whom would I choose? I spent three days with Georgia O’Keeffe the painter, in 1966, and my only regret was that her husband Alfred Stieglitz had died 20 years earlier. I like his photographs very much. He’d be my choice.
What equipment have you found essential in making great images?
In the last century, I used the usual cameras. Leicas and later both Nikons and the Leica and its Visoflex attachment—so that if I chose, I could work holding a 35 mm ground glass camera, waist high or lower, not at my eye. Often I used a tripod to keep the depth of field deep. In other words I was quirky. I have never been adept using larger cameras or lights. Now, after more than six decades as a professional, I’m happy to use my i-Phone but I’m no longer competing with anyone.
Do you have any advice you would like to share with photographers who are just getting started or getting serious about their work ?
I feel sympathetic to those earning their living with a camera these days. But it has always been a crazy business to be engaged in. The only advice that holds true is to find out what gives you pleasure in photography and then make your work as strong and original as you can.
What hangs on your own walls? Do you collected the work of any other photographers?
I have a disorganized number of photographs on my walls. All are mine, except for one Cartier-Bresson, a Brassaï and an Eisenstaedt that each gave me. I don’t collect photographs because I don’t want to be responsible for keeping them safe. Besides, the printed page is a marvelously effective way to present photography. Just this week I was bowled over by a volume printed by Steidl that collects scores of portraits taken of Abraham Lincoln, many of which I’d never seen or known about.
If I can crib from my forthcoming book I’ll sum up with a somewhat pompous statement:
“I believe that each situation is an opportunity to entwine the ordinary and the unexpected into something beautiful and meaningful. A shutter opens briefly to let the camera marry reality to form. Their union defines a moment that might live on. But who knows? The wind blows or the light changes, or the camera shifts or the subject moves. The fact is: a good photograph cannot be repeated. This may explain why the record of a brief moment, an instant in time, can hold our interest forever.”–John Loengard
Thank you John for sharing your work and words with us.
Annie Leibovitz with her assitant Robert Bean © 1991 John Loengard
John Loengard is the author of the following books.
Pictures Under Discussion (New York: Amphoto, 1987),
LIFE Classic Photographs: A Personal Interpretation by John Loengard (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1988),
LIFE Faces, with Commentary by John Loengard (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1991),
Celebrating the Negative (New York: Arcade Publishing, Inc., 1994),
Georgia O’Keeffe at Ghost Ranch (Munich: Schirmer / Mosel, 1995), (New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1995),
LIFE Classic Photographs: A Personal Interpretation by John Loengard, Updated With New Photographs (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1996),
LIFE Photographers: What They Saw (New York: Bullfinch Press, 1998)
The Great LIFE Photographers (New York: Bulfinch Press, 1988)
As I See It (New York: Vendome Press, 2005), (London: Thames & Hudson, 2005), Monografie John Loengard (Paris: Éditions de La Martininiere, 2005),
Georgia O’Keeffe / John Loengard Paintings & Photographs (Munich: Schirmer / Mosel, 2006),
Image and Imagination, Georgia O’Keeffe by John Loengard (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2007),
Age of Silver: Encounters with Great Photographers (Brooklyn: powerHouse Books, 2011) and Moment by Moment / Photographs By John Loengard ( Thames & Hudson ) coming in November 2016.
To learn more about the work of John Loengard please visit his site at, John Loengard Photographs.