Christopher Rauschenberg: The beauty of the bucket

Portland photographer Christopher Rauschenberg has spent his career paying deep attention to the beauty around him

John Cage said, “Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look.” That seems to be the point of Christopher Rauschenberg’s photographs for more than 40 years.

Beyond that work as a photographer, Rauschenberg was one of the five founders of Blue Sky Gallery—now one of the premier photography institutions in America—back in 1975. He founded the Portland Grid Project in 1995. As the website states: “Christopher Rauschenberg took a pair of scissors to a standard map of Portland and cut it into 98 pieces. He then invited a group of 12 Portland photographers, using a variety of cameras, films, formats, and digital processes, to all photograph the randomly selected square each month. By 2005 they had covered every square mile of Portland and shown each other over 20,000 images.” The Grid Project is now on its third round of photographing the city.

Christopher Rauschenberg, Warsaw, 2016

In 1997-1998 he spent time in Paris rephotographing 500 scenes shot previously by Eugene Atget, who Rauschenberg considers “the greatest photographer of all time.” His website portfolio includes photographs from travels to Europe, China, Tanzania, Thailand, Brazil, and Guatemala. From March 26-April 19 a selection of recent photographs from Poland will be shown at Elizabeth Leach Gallery.

When did you start taking pictures?

When I was six years old in 1957, maybe five years old.

When you were doing that, were you thinking that you were a photographer?

No. My mom [artist Susan Weil] had a Rollei [Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera], and I took pictures with it—it weighed about as much as I did—one of those things like a shotgun, when you trip its shutter you gotta brace yourself. But she got me a little [Kodak] Brownie, one of those Bakelite cube kind of cameras, and then she and I would go walking around taking pictures together. When I was six and seven she taught me how to print badly in the darkroom and I made these—I won’t say books exactly,but connected matted prints—sort of book like in their final form, that I gave to people that I gave Christmas presents to, my grandparents. So I was publishing books at an early age. Then I stopped doing it ‘til I was in high school. I bought myself a camera with my saved-up money and started doing more photography again.

So then were you thinking of yourself as being a photographer?

No. I didn’t start thinking of myself as being a photographer until my third year in college when I transferred from Reed up to Evergreen State College. I took a class that was photography and filmmaking. I love film and I’m very interested in film. I figured out it was too hard to make film. It was too expensive. It was too complicated. You were a filmmaker, but you never actually accomplished any filmmaking because it was just so logistically hard.

You have to deal with all those people too.

Yeah. I’m going to shoot something, I need eight people there, so I have to tell three of them I’ll do their laundry for them and one that I’ll do the grocery shopping, so they can be there. And film was very expensive. Just using one roll of 16 mm film (three minutes or something)—to buy the film, get it developed, get a print made so you’re not putting your original in a projector (which is a very dangerous place for some film to be)—the equivalent of a month’s rent. I wouldn’t be able to shoot enough film to learn how to do it.

Were there any kinds of photography or photographers who were influencing you at that point?

My original influence of course was my mom taking me out and photographing together, but I was interested in Minor White, his idea of making pictures of the ordinary world that seem to be some transcendent thing organized in the sequences where it wasn’t necessarily so much about an individual picture, the way a poem is not necessarily about the individual words. That was probably a pretty big influence. Obviously one creates oneself as an artist out of the bits and pieces you take of the artists you’re interested in. It ended up that my most important influences were Lee Friedlander and Eugene Atget.

Atget seems to have done that thing of looking at the ordinary Paris and making it somehow extraordinary, even though you look at it and you can’t figure out why that particular picture is extraordinary.

What I’m interested in from the very beginning: looking at ordinary things and thinking “that’s not boring that’s interesting.” And of course that’s what my father’s [artist Robert Rauschenberg] work is all about. I think my father’s work is very much based on a photographer’s point of view. He did some work in photography himself, and he did work that incorporated a lot of photography. But I think just the basic—when he says, “I think I’m gonna put this necktie and that sock into my painting,”—I think that’s the kind of thing that a camera teaches you, that something that would be insignificant, that you would ignore, the camera doesn’t ignore, it sees it just the same. If you’re sitting at this table and there’s an old dirty sock on this table, the camera sees the old dirty sock just as much it sees your soul coming through your eyes.

When you’re out there photographing do you feel you’re finding pictures or that you’re making pictures?

Finding.

So the world is presenting you with the picture and then you just need a lasso it?

When somebody sees a show of my work, what I want them to think is “Oh, gee, well the world is kind of more interesting than I thought. I need to keep my eye out for stuff like that.” It’s very much about having a sense, for the viewer, that I’m just pointing at stuff that’s there, and giving them a heads up, a “hey, look out for this,” because it’s cool.

Christopher Rauschenberg, Warsaw, 2016

One of my theories is that art helps you to see the world. You might first notice something in artwork and then you go out into the world and say, “look, I think I’ve had this experience before”—but it was in an artwork. Landscape painting defines what is cool in landscape because of the ways certain artists decided to paint this tree or that river or whatever it is.

It teaches you to see it in a certain light.

And not necessarily just the “picturesque.” Seventeenth century Dutch landscapes are pretty mundane if you really evaluate what’s in the pictures—the road, the house, the fence, the tree—but it’s more than that.

To see the music of how things come together. A picture, a painting, a photograph or whatever, can consist of entirely ordinary mundane objects, but there may be a visual spatial relationship, there may be echoing forms, there may be things that are aesthetically pleasing in the work and also in the real world.

There are a lot of people who walk through the world and never “see” it. It seems that something a photographer, or any other artist, is saying is, “Here’s a situation that I find interesting. How can I make my equivalent to a poem out of this that communicates to somebody else about that?” How do you tune your poem about this experience?

I think it’s a continuous learning experience. I don’t think it’s one of those things where at first you’re visually literate and then you read perfectly. It’s this thing where you’re continuously learning. You are continuously in the education biz. You see something that makes you realize that it’s not just a bunch of weird icky people on the bus and you wish you had your own car, but then you look at a Diane Arbus book and you think, “Oh look at these interesting people on the bus with me!” And there’s this process of “in what light can I see something?”—I’m not going to use the word “beautiful”—but by “beautiful” I mean fascinating, strange, I don’t just mean pretty. I mean something that I can benefit from looking at harder.

That’s one of the things I think about with your earlier early black-and-white pictures in the ‘70s—looking at a dishpan rack or looking at the cords coming down the wall, little things. You see them all the time, but whether or not you notice them is another question. Whether or not that would be “beauty” to a philosopher, I don’t know.

I am comfortable using “beauty” that way. You think about people who say, “Oh look that’s a beautiful woman.” Well, you’ve learned to see that a particular person who looks like a Barbie doll—we call that beautiful. But then, as you continue to be out in the world, you discover that maybe even if somebody has brown skin and they don’t look like Barbie, maybe they’re kind of heavier than Barbie (which virtually everyone in the world is)—maybe that’s beautiful.

Rubens had a particular idea about beauty somewhat different from the runway model.

There’s a wonderful quote from my dad: “I really feel sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly because they’re surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable.”

I think the main job—photography can do lots of different things—but for the kind of photography I’m doing, what’s at the core of the medium of photography I think, is that your job as a photographer is to get yourself to actually pay attention, and to actually see what’s ahead of you, on either side of you, what you’re standing underneath, whatever. I think it sounds easy to say, “Why don’t you pay attention and really see everything around you?” but it’s not easy at all. It’s the task of a lifetime.

I remember that you used to say that when you go out to take pictures you could only go out to take pictures. You couldn’t be on the way to the bank and take some pictures or your brain would still be thinking about going to the bank. Or if you ran into somebody, you knew your whole day was shot because you couldn’t get back into that space for taking pictures. Do you still carry that frame of mind when out photographing?

Yeah, I think that your job is to get yourself into a state where you’re really paying attention to what’s around you, and if you’re paying attention to what’s not around you, it kind of eliminates the possibility of really paying attention. As a photographer going out photographing, I’d go back later and look at my contact sheets, back in the pre-digital days, the pictures are lousy lousy lousy lousy lousy lousy. And then there’ll be like four great ones that are in seven frames. And then maybe I remember, “I got to go to the bank. What time is it?” And that would sort of break the spell. Then they’d be lousy again. So it’s like you could see the evidence: OK, here’s where I really broke through and started to see what’s going on around me in a rich way. There is a way in which the pictures before that are necessary, but they’re are necessary in the way a piano player is playing their scales.

One of the funny things about photography is that when you’re just taking a picture of something that you think might not be very important or you’re thinking about the way an artist might make a little sketch or something in a sketchbook—maybe that’s something I should think about in the future. With photography there’s no way to tell if you’re making a little sketch in the sketchbook or you are making your masterpiece—that it’s the greatest picture you’ve ever made in your life. It’s a 60th of a second either way, and that’s something you just decide later. That’s sort of a funny unique thing about photography—what you think of as playing scales could turn out to be your masterpiece.

At some point you switched from being a black-and-white photographer to a color photographer.

It was right around 2000.

So what was your thought around that?

I’ve always liked both black-and-white and color. It’s easy to do black-and-white and it used to be hard to do color.

With black-and-white just go downstairs your darkroom.

I would go down to the basement. I’d load my own film, develop my own film, make my own prints—really easy. Color wasn’t very easy. I started the Portland Grid Project. If I want the largest meaning of my work to be “the ordinary world is wonderful and you should pay attention to it” but all of my portfolio is taken in exotic places—that’s a bad mismatch. I needed to do a project in Portland.

But when I started doing that, I thought, “Well, the ways in which color is difficult is less difficult now.” It used to be much more expensive to print in a book—well, the Portland Grid Project is too big to be a book, it’s going to be a website. On the website it doesn’t matter if something is black-and-white or color, so I started putting a second camera in my pocket with color film in it, and I mostly shot black-and-white, but now and then I’d think, “I wonder what that would look like in color” and I’d shoot it. Then I’d almost always like the black-and-white one better. I kept doing it. Then sometimes I like the color one better. Then I’d usually like the color one better. Then I’d always like the color one better. Then I stopped shooting black-and-white. So that was the transition. I slowly taught myself to actually see better in color.

Christopher Rauschenberg, Warsaw, 2016

The show you’re having Elizabeth Leach Gallery is pictures from Poland.

If you go to the Poland page on my website it’s a series of short stories. The first one is kind of a novella. It’s in a clothing market sort of like a Saturday Market or something. Because the weather in Poland is not exactly like Florida, there’s a lot of covered spaces which made these great shadows, and some of the coverings were a sort of translucent blue and green and these funny little spot spots of light. I mostly photographed in the parts where the stalls were closed, and it’s really about the light landing on the ground.

When you walk into a place like that do you just go “Ooh! Ah!”?

Right, I’m in heaven. It’s interesting because Warsaw was a place that was bombed to smithereens and then rebuilt in Russian practical style. It’s a place that is not rich in architectural beauty. Somehow your task of paying attention and finding the beauty in your surroundings is sometimes easier and sometimes harder.

But sometimes these more boring places are more interesting because there are things that are more surprising. If the buildings are richer, you might not notice the light and shadows because you will be distracted by the buildings.

Yeah, there are lots of things I would typically photograph, like what’s in the store windows and everything, and I didn’t really use that system. They don’t really have shop windows with stuff in them. Same thing in China. You walk down a business street and what they would have in the window is a pile of newspapers leaning up against the glass. Windows are just to let light into the room. There wasn’t any display aspect involved in it.

I was there for a photography festival in Lodz, and I spent some time in Warsaw, some in Kraków. Most of the photographs are from Warsaw, some are from Lodz, a couple I think are from Kraków.

Looking through your website, your trip to India in 1975 seems to be your first bunch of travel pictures.

I think it was. That was funny because I was really working every day. I didn’t have much time to make photographs. I was helping my dad make these prints that were made out of handmade paper and sort of a paper-based clay that they build buildings out of. When we would run out of, say camel whips, I’d say, “Oh I’ll go get them.” Then somebody would drive me into town to the camel whip store and I would photograph out the window of the car. It was like trying to take pictures when you’re on one of these bus tours.

It was very different different from your previous photography, looking at the nooks and crannies of things, and showing us things in a different light. In India you’re looking at a strangely different culture. Did you think about how you were going to deal with this cultural aspect?

Yeah. One of the most important things about travel is that before you travel, however you’re used to things being done, you think that’s the only way to do them. You have a menu like you might have at a hotdog stand. What’s on the menu? Hotdogs! What would you like? I’ll have a…hotdog. But then you travel and see other people do things other ways. It makes you think: look there there’s croque monsieur, pad thai all these other things I could be eating! But you also sort of look back and say, what’s up with this hotdog? You look at your own culture differently, our own baseline assumption of how everything gets done. So it’s partly about going to someplace, seeing how they do things, how it’s different. When I was in India one of the most fascinating things was: what does a bucket look like in India? Looks different than a bucket in America. It’s about seeing/seeing. Seeing the Indian bucket differently and also about seeing the American bucket differently—and our assumptions, what we think. Certainly in this country the people who haven’t traveled, haven’t seen other ways to do things, are at a disadvantage in terms of how they can understand what’s happening in the world, but also how they understand what’s happening in their own hometown.

When you go to what we think of as exotic places you seem to be looking for the local ordinary, not the exotic.

Yeah, I photograph the bucket not the Taj Mahal

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