Interview by Costanza Francesconi
All images © Adam Bartos
Born in 1953, Adam Bartos is a New Yorker who has dedicated his whole life to photography and is still doing so. Since he was a teenager, he has been capturing on film the vivid space between things, realizing photos where the fluctuating quality of the world is ever present. His pictures portray the passing of time, the constant altering of colours and the mark of history on the surrounding landscape. The artist presents an album of his fascinating encounter with northern India.
Taking your first steps as an aspiring photographer, did you receive a formal education? Or did you learn the art of photography by yourself in the field?
I started taking photos in my teens and I was influenced by all kinds of things – art, music, and people. I never studied photography at school. I did, however, have an opportunity to meet the great German-American photographer Evelyn Hofer who took an interest in me. She became a teacher, and a lifelong friend. She gave me a thorough technical education from optics to chemistry and tutored me in completing my first photo project – a set of prints on Agfa Brovira paper, of empty New York City parking lots.
Still, what I really thought I wanted to be was a cinematographer and I attended film school at NYU. I was also shooting Kodachromes, and becoming aware of work by Shore, Eggleston and a few others working in colour. At that time, we were projecting these chromes on the wall, giving them scale, and the whiff of cinema. Eventually, the freedom to make something by myself, without a crew or script, and the excitement of working with colour photography in a considered way, took a hold of me.
When did your passion as a young photographer turn into a job?
I started taking jobs in the late 1970’s. Since I had always been keenly interested in architecture, and especially the work of various 19th century photographers who photographed monuments, train stations, and what was then modernity. This led me to look for jobs in this area. Architectural photography was a way to make work meeting a technical standard of sharp edges, clear perspectives, and balanced light, which appealed to me as a professional challenge. I did many assignments for architects and various kinds of publications in the 80’s and 90’s. A highlight was an assignment to photograph the ongoing restoration of the Cours Carrée at the Louvre, the same area that Edouard Baldus had photographed in 1854.
Considering the variety of your many projects, from the Seventies onwards, journey is a recurrent theme. Would you consider your photography to be documentary?
I would certainly describe my work as documentary – but not concerned with current issues. I sometimes feel when taking a picture of this or that, however inconsequential the subject matter may be, I am the advocate for this thing in situ, that my eye and taste choose. Photography’s unique power of description is obvious on the one hand, and full of mystery on the other.
Working both in the United States and abroad, you have brought to light a whole range of important subjects through the lens your camera. In so doing, what relationship have you established with this medium over the years?
I like to work on projects over time and accrue what become variations on the same theme, which a book will accommodate in a way that a wall usually cannot. I love to look at photographs in books. Luckily, with digital printing enabling independent and self-publishing photographers to make beautiful books in small numbers, there is a renewed interest in bookmaking now, even as trade publishers struggle to stay in business.
What would you like to share your viewers?
I would like to share a quote from Josef Sudek: “I believe that photography loves banal objects, and I love the life of objects”. And another from Walker Evans: “Photography has nothing whatsoever to do with “Art”… But, it’s an art for all that”.
Northern India, 1981. This project, although it dates back a long time, still has the power to transport the viewer to a distant world and a timeless atmosphere. What is the story behind this work?
These photos were made on my first trip to India. At that time, there was relatively little tourism, and hardly any passenger cars on the roads. India was a little quieter then, and a foreigner with a 4×5 camera on a tripod attracted good natured curiosity. I think you can sense this in the photographs.
The natural landscapes of Northern Indian, the traditional clothes, the rarefied air and the warm light – not to mention the architecture, the furnishings and the convivial situations you photographed – everything speaks of a world of its own. How did this project come about? Did you have a specific goal?
The photos are a result of the encounter I had with a fascinating place. Naturally, I was looking for pictures, and when a situation struck my eye I tried to act on it. There is a visual mood, character or circumstance that attracts me, and I have an urge to record what I have chosen. I am not aware of a particular meaning.
Since “Northern India, 1981” what has changed in your most recent work?
Forty years! The photographs themselves change with time and sometimes acquire a patina of mystery.
Are you working on anything special at the moment? Can you tell us about work in progress?
I have been photographing a landscape between two bodies of water in New York State over several years. However, I am not finished with this project yet.
Thank you very much Adam!