Author and ad guy Mark St. Amant chats with noted photographer and co-author of “The Unforgettable Photograph”, George Lange.
You’ll be relieved to know that this latest Man-to-Man piece comes without the requisite, rambling St. Amant 5,500-word intro. Just gonna get right to it (with exactly 258 more words). Why? Because George Lange’s answers are some of the most compelling I’ve gotten yet, and I want to leave plenty of room for them. In other words, to quote legendary fictional filmmaker and Chuck Wagon commercial creator, Marty DiBergi: “Enough of my yakkin’.”
Meet George Lange. He’s my new neighbor and family friend here in Boulder. And while that alone isn’t enough to qualify him for interviewee status – if anything, his proximity to me might make you actively avoid him – he also happens to be one of the top photographers in the world.
George’s work has appeared in Esquire, GQ, the New York Times, and countless other publications. And his latest endeavor is his first book (co-authored with Cooking Light editor, Scott Mowbray), The Unforgettable Photograph: 228 Ideas, Tips, and Secrets for Taking the Best Pictures of Your Life, whichhas come out to rave reviews. Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “[Lange’s] candid approach deserves credit for humanizing picture taking by deliberately emphasizing the medium’s poetic possibilities over its technical aspects.” Parade said it’s “for anyone who’s dreamed of capturing the perfect image.” Real Simple wrote, “You’re practically guaranteed a game-changing idea or impactful tweak for bringing more soul, spirit, and life into your snapshots (whether you’re using an iPhone or pro-grade gear).” And most important — my four-year-old son, Graham, said, “Hey, that’s George’s face!” before going back to his Angry Birds game. Compelling stuff, all.
Anyway, I recently I stuck my head over the virtual hedges to chat with George about everything from the book, fatherhood and what makes an “unforgettable” photograph”, to attending Pittsburgh Steeler games with his late father, his opinion of “good enough”, and his highly improbable yet productive friendship with right wing poster boy, Glenn Beck.
MARK ST. AMANT: The Unforgettable Photograph espouses a belief that pictures don’t have to be – shouldn’t be — perfectly staged. What’s so vital about “imperfection” when it comes to taking an unforgettable photograph?
GEORGE LANGE: Life is imperfect. If our photographs – which have become the personal records of our daily life – are to be any kind of accurate record of the lives we are living, our pictures better not be perfect. WE are not perfect. Even if you get your teeth straightened and whitened, your face pulled just right, your nails painted and cuticles pushed back…even when you think every hair is in place – when you get in front of the lens, everything is revealed. We can never be perfect on the surface. The closest thing to the perfect portrait is an image that reveals something about who we are (and that is a plural). What we look like is the mask we live in and play with. Masks can be revealing, but they are just a surface. Perfection is not even sexy. What is perfect sex? How long it lasts? Where it touches? Hard or soft? Top or bottom? We can be very forgiving when we are naked and our eyes are closed and we are using every sense except for our eyes to feel. The search for the perfect picture is not even a noble quest. I don’t like rules that ride like blinders. I want to see with my fingers. Search with my tongue. Breathe with my nose.
MS: That is easily the coolest answer I’ve ever gotten. We should just stop now. But we won’t. You grew up in one of America’s most blue-collar, nose-to-the-grindstone, punch-the-clock cities – Pittsburgh – during an era – the ‘60’s – when much the country was riding the peace train and loving the one you’re with. How did those two polar opposite vibes coexist?
GL: Yes, I was raised in Pittsburgh — with all its brute strength — to be soft and feeling. I grew up in a very liberal Jewish neighborhood, Squirrel Hill, which was pretty isolated from reality. We were all comfortable enough to not have to think about being comfortable. Almost no one got divorced. There was a real matriarch of our neighborhood, Natalie Meyers, who was well versed in mid-century architecture and furniture, had gatherings in her home with Cesar Chavez and Tom Lehrer. Natalie had a big fur coat that she had sewn in a label that said, “Boycott Grapes.” She even had a membership to the Museum of Modern Art, which was really rare in Squirrel Hill. It was a whole different thing. When I was in tenth grade there was a rally against the Vietnam War at the University of Pittsburgh. I skipped school for the day and went and photographed. John Kerry spoke representing Vietnam Vets Against the war. Many others. When I went back to school the next day, my social studies teacher—a real tough-ass—had me stand up in front of the class and say where I’d been the previous day. I said, “At the anti war rally…and I learned more in that one day than in my whole education so far.”
MS: What did your late father do? And what two words describe him?
GL: My father began a construction company with his brother an hour from Pittsburgh in the belly of the Steel Valley in Beaver Falls. They started with my mother’s typewriter from college, a card table, and a couple of chairs. No one in that area had ever met a Jew. Every day my father and his brother Leonard drove up into that valley to work. Aluminum siding was a big one for them. The air pump—an air conditioner that blew cold and pulled hot air—was big, too. I don’t think my father knew very much about construction. What he was able to do was to love, and allow himself to be loved. By men. The bankers were man. The restaurants all run by men. The Chamber of Commerce was all men. My father was amazing at getting these men to love and respect him. An amazing salesman, and what he was mostly selling was himself. It was a crazy dance. Lots of booze. Lots of cigarettes. They gathered for every Steeler home game in a big block of seats. Then it was cigars and coffee.
As for two words: funny and generous. My father was just so sweet. Only a high school education. Really smart in a very human way. He only knew how to be himself. I don’t think it ever occurred to him to change one thing. He was so totally wonderful and sweet. I don’t dare compare myself to him. He could tell jokes for hours. Life is simpler and more beautiful when you are yourself. He found himself in the most unlikely places, with men he never should have been friends with. He was an outsider, but he was loved. He found a way into the scene up in the Steel Valley where he worked by being respected, always kept his word, being really smart, and funny.
Days before my father died I was with him in Pittsburgh. I had an assignment to go to Beijing for IBM and was going to turn it down. My father would have nothing to do with it. He insisted I go and promised he would be there when I came back. When I landed in Beijing, I called home and my brother answered and I knew he was there because things had gone south. My father had gone into a coma and no one knew how much longer he’d last. I felt like I was living out his final request and did my work, then immediately flew back home. My father had been unconscious the entire time I was gone, but when I walked in his room, he woke up and asked how my trip was? It was so much my like him to keep his word. Even then. The next morning it was sunny and beautiful in my parents’ bedroom…and it just happened to be my father’s 74th birthday. We changed his sheets, held his hands and he took his last breaths. It was astonishing watching his body that had lived and breathed and beat for EXACTLY 74 years shut down. Just after my father took his last breath, my mother said, “He was a great guy.” And it was true. When I walk in a door and engage strangers. When I live my life with values that must be deep in my DNA. When I believe in myself deeply and powerfully. When I search for those places where love lives—where we are all connected—I know those abilities came from my father.
MS: Like most Pittsburghians (Pittsburgers? Pittsburghese?) in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, you were Steeler fanatics. Tell me about your Sunday ritual of Steeler games growing up?
GL: In the early 60’s the Steelers were playing at Pitt Stadium. Splintery wooden benches, blisteringly cold, and just horrible teams. I would sit next to my father who was smoking cigars and drinking coffee and ask him which one kept him warm. My feet were numb by the end of the first quarter. We would fumble in a line at halftime to pee in one of those long troughs with the pee steaming in a long river. (Mark, I know any women reading this will LOVE that image!).
At some point, a group was formed by the mostly Jewish men from Squirrel Hill. A few of the wives toughed it out. My father included a group of bank and business execs who were friends of his from his construction company up in the Steel Valley. These two groups would come from opposites sides of the city, meet at the games, rarely socializing. My father was the conduit between these two worlds that he worked and lived in. When the Steelers moved to Three River’s Stadium, my father and his work friends got the whole first row of the section, the best seats of the group.
MS: As someone who endured Patriots games in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s at the old Schaefer/Sullivan Stadium in Foxboro, I can relate to the misery of frozen, metal grandstands and just abominably bad teams. But that’s part of the bond, right? I sometimes felt like we were like those Chilean rugby players who survived the cannibalism plane crash. We’d endured something together. We’d earned something together. And doing it with family was just a bonus.
GL: Yes, going to the games with my father was a ritual and the most consistently joyous thing we did together throughout my entire childhood. Every single Steeler home game from about five-years-old through graduating high school I sat right next to my father. He was still so superstitious, after all those horrible teams, that when they started to win he wore the same tweed coat to every game. When everyone was waving their “Terrible Towels” my father would sport his “Terrible Tweed.” We were there for the lean ‘60’s years where they never finished better than 5-8-1. But then we enjoyed all the great Chuck Noll/Terry Bradshaw/Steel Curtain years in the ‘70’s. We held each other and screamed trying to figure out what the hell we’d just missed as Franco Harris caught the Immaculate Reception. We cheered the great Greene-Ham-Lambert-Blount defenses. Hal Betters, a favorite local jazz group of my Dad’s somehow played brass instruments in that cold. My father’s high school friend, Myron Cope, would do the post game show on the radio with of us all packed into the station wagon going home. It was a big family. The funny thing about going to the Steeler games all those years with my father is it was never really about the game. It was about being together. It was never even discussed. It was just this amazing feeling of being with my father, and all of these men, and having a ritual. Watching those tough teams fight it out in the bitter cold. I remember the cold so clearly. I remember the binoculars my father used. I remember the raw battle on the field.
MS: And what role did your mother play in this little football-and-cigars boy’s club?
GL: Of course, I don’t want to leave my mother out of this discussion. She has this ability to think freely and talk in ways that must be the Jewish version of talking in tongues. My father used to tease me that whatever was on my mind was on my tongue – that there was no filter. I got THAT and so much else from my mother. When my father died, my mother never missed a beat. She missed him, of course. But she used her intense curiosity to keep searching for the joy she got from great art and performances and film, and she’s just kept evolving.
My father did not make his money with his business. He made it becoming friends with the Irish Catholic guy who started a Styrofoam packaging business. He did that work for stock. (“One word, Benjamin: Plastics.”) When he retired there was thankfully plenty from that for my mother to live on for years.
MS: Do you have a favorite lens? I’M KIDDING, I’M KIDDING! No photo nerd talk here, Clicky McShutterfly! (Even though I know you prefer the 24–70mm f/2.8L). Let’s instead talk New York versus Boulder: what are the pros and cons of leaving a life in Manhattan/New Jersey for a relatively small, insular town in the Rocky Mountains? Have you experienced any drastic culture shock?
GL: I have a camera (the Canon 1DX) and favorite lens (the NEW Canon 28-70) but if you gave me any camera and any lens I would be fine if I could take my pictures. I love my tools—they work really well for me—but I use them like weapons. Focusing them on targets. Pulling the trigger. Sometimes I push my camera out in front of me and want to throw it where I am aiming. NOT in anger—but needing the physicality that I feel when I am shooting. I reach out and hold my subjects hand. I talk shit. My cameras take a beating.
Then there’s Boulder, which I’ve grown, in a year-and-a-half, to really love. I came to Boulder with the sole goal of creating a community to raise my family. I could not find that community in NYC. I had people I loved, but felt alone. (Now when I go back, I feel much more a part of it – but maybe that is because my life in Boulder has me in a really good place). I entered the Boulder community with a purpose. I wanted to meet people. I wanted to create friendships. I wanted my family to have other families to hang out with. I would indulge whatever culture Boulder had to offer. Food had become less important, but I knew I would not starve in Boulder. I wanted a great place to raise my kids. And —as much as I hate to admit it—New York was not sustainable for me. The cost of living was beyond what seemed attainable, since the break-even point was not on the map.
MS: You’ve told me that the men in your family—being blunt—don’t exactly have a great track record when it comes to lifespan. How has this affected the way you life your life, and how you photograph it?
GL: Between our history (being a Jew) and my family’s lousy genes, I have been even more aware of how precious life is. Only one grandparent was alive when I was born, and he died when I was five. It keeps you feeling like time is pretty short and valuable and precious. I never drank. I never did any drugs. Really nothing. I always felt they stole time from me, and I didn’t want to waste a second.
MS: By your own admission, you’re the prototypical “card-carrying New York liberal.” And yet you’ve managed to form a unique friendship with none other than Glenn Beck. How did this happen and what have you learned from each other?
GL: I got a call in 2006 to photograph a man named Glenn Beck…whom I’d never heard of. We worked up lots of ideas for the shoot—conspiracy theories that entangle him; flying nuclear missiles he could straddle; a dog lampshade to keep him from eating cake (he was on a diet). The shoot was crazy-fun. Glenn was charismatic, game for anything, and took every idea and ran with it. Far.
Several months later, I got a call to shoot a book cover for Glenn. I was now figuring out his politics, but wanted another shoot with him. I rented Richard Avedon’s old studio—a small white cove on the Upper East Side of NY where everyone from Marilyn Monroe to The Beatles had been shot. I wanted to do something special in that hallowed photographic space. I worked through all the ideas the publisher had. Then (as I remember it—Glenn disputes my account) Glenn said, “I hate California.” I replied, “That’s a crazy thing to say.” Glenn said, “Don’t even get me started.” So I looked around the studio and found a map of the United States. I realized California looked like a tongue. I cut it out, and asked Glenn to put it in his mouth sticking out. It was all totally spontaneous. I think asked Glenn to look into the camera and eat California, which he was only too happy to do. Faking indigestion, he chewed and swallowed it frame-by frame- until it was finally a little wad in his mouth and I told him to spit it at the camera. Which he did with gusto. That was the final frame of the shoot. Our 31st state, chewed up and hurling from Glenn’s mouth to my lens, suspended in mid-air.
MS: A working relationship is one thing. But seriously, how does such a liberal become so close with Glenn Beck?
GL: See that’s the thing: we don’t talk about politics much. We don’t see each other in terms of labels—Liberal, Conservative, Republican, Democrat. We find other ways in. We talk about being parents a lot. We talk about love, which is the most important thing to me of all. All of my work is about loving my subjects, trying to show what makes them so special, trying to find that place that we all connect. How can you love the “most hated man in America?” Our relationship is all about trust. It’s about the relationship that developed between two men who could not be more opposite in their political beliefs. Two men who found an incredible bond both creatively and personally as friends despite their differences. It’s a story I’m extremely proud of and infinitely surprised by. My friendship with Glenn is exactly like the ones my father had at work in the Beaver Falls. The similarities are scary, and in the end, I know how proud he would be of my relationship and the work.
A lot changed for me when I started photographing Glenn Beck. He became the most unlikely muse for my work and began a creative journey that continues today. He has pushed me the hardest creatively and made me come to grips with embracing and communicating with people who, on the surface, seem very different. One of the greatest joys of working with Glenn has been how his audience has embraced our work together. Glenn jokes on the air—wait, they ARE jokes, right Glenn?—about me being his communist friend. His audience knows my politics, they know where I come from, and yet they’ve opened their arms to me. I haven’t tried to hide my politics. I stay loyal to my own beliefs. But more important, I’ve searched for the place we’re all connected. In this world of intolerance, hatred, deep divides, we’ve found that place in which we all find love in. THAT is the most radical thought I can think of, and the piece of my work with Glenn I’m most proud of. We’ve reached beyond politics to friendships. We’ve gone beyond suspicion to trust. We’ve believed in a greater good from very different parts of the spectrum. Mostly though, we’ve just had tons of fun.
So, how can I be friends with Glenn? This is how: My brother had a heart attack in Boulder last May. He’s fine now, but was in a coma for three weeks in the ICU, where I stayed the whole time (before he miraculously recovered). Every single day, Glenn would reach out to me asking if he could help, offering to come to Boulder and visit, whatever I needed. After days of his offers, I told my mother (also a big liberal) about Glenn’s offering to help. She was pretty raw going through this whole period with my brother and she blurted out, “Yes he can help: tell Glenn to vote Democratic and cut the BS!” The next day I told Glenn what she’d said and he replied, “George, I’d do anything for you . . . but that’s never gonna happen.”
MS: Who is the best man you currently know, and why?
GL: Wow. I started getting calls about a year ago from a man in Paris named Pedro. I didn’t know him. He had seen some of my work and it connected for him. Deeply. Our relationship became a series of phone calls I could only be there to take in. I could not call him. Could not email. He was a branding guy. Just super smart. Shockingly. The calls were long and he did most of the talking. I just stood listening to these calls, looking out the window, taking it all in. It began to feel like he was calling from my conscience. Like a pure vein to my unconscious. He knew who I was. What I was supposed to be doing. Mostly what he did was confirm everything I thought about, even if I could not really articulate it. He was down in my soul with a flashlight.
MS: Fatherhood came later in life for you. And you’ve told me that being an “older dad” (your words) has perhaps given you a little more appreciation for being a dad at all. Why do you think this is? And do you think you could have been as involved/passionate a father had you had kids earlier in life?
GL: My first answer to that is that I could not be this kind of father, or the kind of man I was born to be without Stephie, my wife. She is truly the missing piece. There is no explaining how she came into my life—it was so random. The greatest single thing I ever did was recognize how special Stephie is the moment I saw her, and follow that gut feeling. It makes no sense to see a stranger appear at the door and know that it’s the person you’re supposed to be with. Every single day since we met, Stephie has blown me away.
Look, we can’t do this on our own. We can’t live a trusting life without being trustworthy. We cannot be great without someone to love. Stephie and I never discussed having children when we got married. The whole discussion came a couple of years into our marriage. One day Stephie let me know she was going off the pill. A month later, she handed me three envelopes. When I opened the third envelope and realized there was a baby growing I cried harder than I have ever cried in my life. Tears flooded out. I couldn’t get ahold of myself. It was so deep. It was a truth I had buried because of circumstance. It was a dream I had hidden my whole adult life. From myself. The tears only came out stronger when our first son was born. At that moment, in those three breaths, my life was complete. When Stephie and I took Jackson in a stroller for the first time, we got to the end of the driveway and stopped. We looked at each other and said, “Now we are one of them.”
MS: “Them” meaning parents?
GL: Yes. Being a parent is crazy. All I want is to be with our boys. While I love my work more than most, nothing compares to that moment when I come in the front door and they run screaming my name into my arms. The name they cry out is only used by two young boys on this earth to me. “DADDY!” It is beyond my wildest imagination that I am “DADDY!” to these two boys. Maybe I appreciate it more being pulled away to work all day, making that moment of reunion sweeter. Maybe it’s because having lived fairly long before becoming a father, I can appreciate what my boys bring to my life. Mostly, it is just appreciating love. My childhood was all about love. It was the great lesson I was taught. There is not a second since I’ve become a father that feeling that love, appreciating that love, hopefully teaching these boys how to love even more (if that’s even possible!), and sharing that love as a family, has not been the greatest joy I know.
MS: I love your story of the moment you and Stephie—okay, mostly Stephie—decided it was time to have a second child. Can you share that?
GL: We were sitting alone at dinner in our big Victorian house in Maplewood. It was dark outside. Our first son Jackson was asleep. Stephie’s father was sick. Stephie said, “There is something missing in our home.” I thought…a sofa, some blinds, something for the kitchen?? “What is that” I asked. “The rest of our family.” That was the entire discussion about having our second child. What can you say?
MS: What’s your most cherished “ritual” as a guy (not including your childhood Steeler games)?
GL: My greatest “rituals” involve my family. Before even opening my eyes in the morning, asking Stephie if I have told her how much I love her yet. Putting my boys to sleep every night with the words, “I love being your Daddy.” That moment before coming in the front door each night from work. Taking a pause with my hand on the door knob. The sound of my boys running into my arms screaming, “Daddy!”
MS: Over the years, you’ve photographed everyone from Matt Lauer, Jonah Hill, Diane Sawyer, Jim Carrey, and Honey Boo Boo to Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Ewan MacGregor, Queen Latifah, the “Seinfeld” cast, and Barack and Michelle Obama. You’ve even made inanimate (but delicious) objects like (Dublin, Ohio’s legendary) Jeni’s ice cream come alive. But is there anyone on Earth – anyone you can name, that is – you would never want to photograph, and why? Flip side: who’s thus far eluded your camera that you’d love to shoot?
GL: I do not want to photograph evil. In any form. My camera glorifies people. Glorifies ideas. I do not want to glorify evil. I want to photograph Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Ira Glass, Pedro, the Dalai Lama, and maybe take mental pictures of Duane Michals. If you open it up to people who are no longer with us, I would like to photograph: Pina Bausch, Louis Armstrong, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jackie Kennedy, Fred Astaire, The Nicolas Brothers, Bojangles Robinson, Bob Marley, The Beatles (together), Balanchine, Anne Bancroft (Mrs. Robinson era), Miles Davis…
MS: What advice would the adult George give the teenage George about life?
GL: Mark – This is one of the craziest questions of all! Everything you need is sitting on the end of your nose. I would tell him don’t look too far beyond that for answers. I would tell him, pay a little more attention to the pictures. Be a little more disciplined. Work a little more on your own community. I would tell him to write more. I would tell him who you will become will not be such a stranger from who you are. I would tell him to embrace being an artist. It is who you are. It is what you do. I would tell him not to buy that house in Maplewood. I would tell him to skip the Prada/Gucci buying period. I would tell him to save more money. I would tell him to ramble far, because you are going to want to be home one day.
MS: What’s the single worst thing that’s ever happened to you during a photo shoot?
GL: I actually love when horrible things happen. I like playing off the drama. Lights have exploded and caught on fire. Subjects have pushed back and acted badly. But the worst thing was probably when I was doing a Fortune cover with the great-grandsons of Henry Ford—Edsel II and William Clay Jr.—in the huge boardroom of Ford Motor Company. I set up at the end of the biggest boardroom table in the world. I got permission to use the most iconic paintings of their father’s, which we put on easels behind them. When I was shooting, one of them leaned back on one of the paintings, the easel came through and stabbed their great grandfather’s forehead. There was a loud gasp in the room and I just said, “Does anyone have some tape to fix it for the shooting. We can get it restored later.” We kept shooting like nothing happened.
MS: What’s the worst decision you’ve ever made—personally, professionally, or both—and how have you learned from it?
GL: So many of the big decisions I have made were made spontaneously. ALL the big decisions. I am not great at weighing the negatives and the positives. My criteria for taking assignments, very consciously at the beginning, was to only take assignments I could learn and grown from. Later, I learned every experience good or bad is fodder for growth. Now I sometimes feel that the hardest assignments teach you the most. I was married once before, but I don’t think that was a bad decision. I didn’t have the tools to ask certain questions then.
MS: So what did all this teach you?
GL: Our job is to be who we are. That is not a “peace” thing, or a “blue collar” thing—it is our mission in life. Many of us get sidetracked. We lose our balls at that intersection of reality and dreams. Many take the safest path to security. Many do not have the education, or the confidence to massage the dream. Many of us are fine with “okay” and live in the house built with “good enough” and “can’t wait for the weekend.” Many of us are holding an awful lot in.
MS: I almost shouted “AMEN!” when I read a recent Facebook post of yours about one of my personal pet peeves: people who settle for “Good Enough”. In lieu of a question here, I’m just going to re-post it in its entirety. Says all you need to say, and can be translated to advertising, writing, parenthood, bull-riding, skeet-shooting, whatever it is you love and do.
GL (from https://www.facebook.com/george.lange.9): I met with a friend last week in NY who works for a large corporation who’s used me in the past. He said to me, “George, we love your work. It is some of the best we’ve ever done. But we can get someone who charges less than you…and the work is “good enough.”
Generally I would respond diplomatically. But after having recently read an argument that the Beatles were so successful because they honestly felt they were the “best fucking rock band in the world,” I felt I had to be more direct. So I responded: ”When you go home tonight and see your kids, are you going to read to them while checking your email? You will make it through the book, but not really be there. Are you going to be a ‘good enough’ Dad? Are you going to make love to your wife and afterwards say, “That was ‘good enough’ for me. Was that ‘good enough’ for you?” Is loving ‘good enough’ really okay?
One of the reasons my life is crazy and amazing, is I try to do everything the best I possibly can. With my kids. With my wife. With my work. I would never settle for “good enough”. EVER! This life is too short and our time too precious to waste it on “good enough.” Every day I am after greatness. I don’t always get there, but I do often enough to know that is the only place I want to be. For clients who are fine with “good enough” — hire the cheap guy. For clients who want the best fucking photographer in the world – get me in front of your story. The bar I start with is higher than where the “good enough” guy leaves you.
MS: It’s probably impossible to answer, but who is the best photographer of all-time and why?
GL: August Sander is a huge hero of mine. The honesty, beauty, simplicity and directness of his work astonishes me every time I get to hang out with his work. Duane Michals defined photography for me. “This photograph is my proof. There was that afternoon, when things were still good between us, and she embraced me, and we were so happy. It did happen, she did love me. Look see for yourself!.” Richard Avedon’s body of work—and the way he managed his business and archive. Annie Leibovitz—who taught me rhythm and was so generous when we worked together. Emmet Gowin’s work with his wife both astonished me in college and provided a huge fantasy about marriage. Lartigue’s panoramas. Martin Munkacsi’s movement images. Hillman Curtis’s way of seeing and generosity. My teacher, Wendy Snyder MacNeil at RISD who told me every week to, “don’t think just take pictures.” Francesca Woodman, who was the real deal.
MS: The subhead for this very site is “The conversation no one else is having.” What conversation would you like to have — and with whom – that you can’t or haven’t been able to yet?
GL: I would like to talk to Louis Armstrong over big bowls gumbo. I would like to talk to August Sander about what he sees. I would like to talk to Judy Garland just after she came off stage at Carnegie Hall. I would like to walk through a cemetery of literary lions with Patti Smith. I would like to go to a strip club with Tom Waits. I would like to smoke cigarettes with Pina Bausch (even though I have never smoked) and run through sprinklers together. I would like to hug my RISD friend who took her life, Francesca Woodman even tighter. I once got to photograph Pete Seeger for Rolling Stone; he was a BIG childhood hero. I asked him to sing, “Song for Eve” to me…and he did. Duane Michals writes about the conversation his father promised they would have, but never did. I DID have that conversation with my father. It was after he told me he was not leaving this life until he knew I was happy. At that moment I knew my first marriage was going to end…right in his hospital room in Pittsburgh at that very moment. The rest of his life we talked about love. Very consciously. Very directly. He talked about the Yiddish word, “Mensch” which means, “A person of integrity and honor.” We talked about his own marriage to my mother. I got to tell him how much I was going to miss him. And he held me so tight that night.
MS: Call me a curmudgeon, but for all their upside, I often bemoan technology like iMovie or GarageBand, that can make otherwise untalented/un-driven people think that making films/commercials/videos/music is “easy”. GEE, NOW, ANYONE CAN DO IT! (Oh, and thanks for killing Sound City, GarageBand!) So, has technology — specifically, iPhones and their ability to let people play “photographer” at the drop of a hat — helped or hurt the craft and art of photography? Or is this precisely what your philosophy — and your book — espouses: that photography isn’t “art” and shouldn’t be treated so preciously as to be unwelcoming or intimidating to the amateur/layperson? In short, does fingertip technology help capture those un-staged, “unforgettable” photographs?
GL: My friend, the writer Alan Paul, reminded me that I told him the best camera you can get is the one in your pocket, the one you always have with you. The big breakthrough in taking better pictures is recognizing those moments. Seeing the pictures you never take and TAKING them! Whatever means available—your phone, a fancy camera, a pen and napkin, a mental picture. Especially when you are in deep in the moments where our lives are the most interesting—we need to be able to use our fingertips—feel the pictures—more than over thinking. What I love about smart phones is how the settings are simple and how available they are.
MS: What, in your mind, defines a “good man”?
GL: I want to be a great man. Good is not enough. Good makes excuses for being afraid to reach for greatness. Good allows for not taking risks. Great men have integrity, are dedicated to honesty and don’t play it too straight. Great men struggle with the balance of home and work — but know the value of being generous with their family and friends. Great men understand that being trustworthy is the only way to be trusted. Great men can listen. Great men are not afraid of failure. Great men believe in themselves. Great men are able to collaborate. Great men can say, “Thank You.”
MS: We’re crotch-deep in Holiday shopping time. (And, as you know, we’re giving three signed copies of your book to relatives; yes, it’s very convenient that we’re neighbors.) So, speaking directly to the folks who, as we speak, are browsing Amazon or wandering the aisles of an ancient temple once known as a “book store,” what’s the ONE KEY message would you have for them, to convince them to buy your book?
GL: We are all photographers now. EVERY person on your holiday list is a photographer. If they read our book, they will take better pictures. They will enjoy taking pictures more. And, hopefully they will appreciate their lives even more.
Many thanks to George for the time & thoughtful answers. Visit http://www.langestudio.com/ for more info about George, and http://www.amazon.com/The-Unforgettable-Photograph-Secrets-Pictures/dp/0761169237 to buy the book. Follow him on Twitter https://twitter.com/LangeStudio . And don’t be afraid to friend him on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/george.lange.9