Photographer Spotlight : Adam Katseff
Tell me about you!
I currently live in Brookline Massachusetts with my family – my wife, two kids, and two bull terriers who I fondly refer to as my quirky studio assistants. I grew up here in Massachusetts and moved back after living in California for grad school and teaching at Stanford. I like to joke that we bought our 120-year-old house for the garage, which I’ve turned into my studio. There’s some truth to it though, and I sometimes feel spoiled by being able to pop out at any hour to make prints – and up to 60×80” prints at that!
In between undergrad and grad school, I worked at one of the last high-end fine art photo labs, printing and transporting work for international artists to museums and galleries in NYC every week. Talk about an education! We did everything from processing the film in dip and dunk machines, making color darkroom prints to 72×96”, and mounting and framing for sale or exhibition. While all the skills learned were and are incredibly useful, it was often making proof prints for famous artists that were the most enlightening rather than the final product. Being able to see all the “bad” pictures that led to the edit the rest of the world got to see was heartening to a young photographer making plenty of the “bad” ones myself. I felt like I was in on the secret in a way, often being the only person aside from the photographers themselves to see every single image made.
How did you discover your love for photography?
A close friend insisted that I borrow his (slightly broken) Pentax K1000 during a high school field trip to Walden Pond after I kept pointing to things for him to photograph. My day with that camera was liberating, and the problem of film jamming that he warned me about was no issue after I opened the back and pushed the film back into the canister. I did that for two rolls and when I got back to the darkroom, he asked a clarifying question: “wait… you SAW the film? In the light? How much of it?!” When I responded proudly that I had indeed seen all of the film, he tossed it in the garbage. As a junior in high school, I guess I had no idea of the mechanics of cameras, film, and light. Somehow I left this potentially deterring experience with even more intrigue and passion to explore and understand the medium.
Many successfully rewound rolls later, I went to Massachusetts College of Art for my undergraduate degree, starting off as a printmaking and photography dual major. It became pretty clear early on that my heart was with a big camera and darkroom printing.
Mass Art had an absolutely amazing group of professors/artists in the photography department and I was head over heels for the whole thing – the art-making, the process, the technology, and the community that was at the core of photography for me at that time.
Who are some of your favorite photographers (past or present)?
The book that I discovered in my hometown library that truly made me feel like I might have had a voice in this medium was William Eggleston’s Guide. It’s somewhat of a surprise given the work I make now, but I felt so liberated by seeing images of subjects often referred to as “ordinary” or “mundane”. To me they were anything but boring pictures, they were revelations, and somehow I felt this permission to look at everything in my immediate surroundings as miraculous, finding that potential with the aid of photography. Around that time I saw a show at Phillips Academy titled Reinventing the West: The Photography of Ansel Adams and Robert Adams. I had never heard of Robert Adams and I was head over heels the moment I saw his prints. I felt an almost magnetic pull toward the work by Robert Adams, which felt familiar, relatable, challenging, and inspiring, showing an angsty teenager that his suburban hometown was possibly interesting through a camera.
Looking back at my early inspiration, I feel quite indebted to the photographers in the 70’s falling into the show, and subsequent genre titled “New Topographics”. It taught me that you could have a miraculous picture that didn’t require a “typically miraculous” subject, a different way of looking at landscape with human involvement and impact that felt missing from so many of the more traditional landscape pictures. Joel Sternfled’s book American Prospects also served as a bible of sorts for many years and helped to show me the revelatory nature of images made with big cameras and big film.
Beyond those origin story heroes, I find inspiration in so much work and have a book collection that seems to constantly outgrow my shelves. Carleton Watkins is perhaps one of the most influential photographers since “Finding My Voice” many years ago. I feel quite confident that he’s the best landscape photographer to ever live, and that’s not taking into account that he made his pictures around the time of the birth of the medium, lugging literal tons of glass plates to places that were very difficult to access. A list of other deeply influential artists includes Hiroshi Sugimoto, Uta Barth, Emmet Gowin, Thomas Joshua Cooper, Ed Ruscha, Ad Reinhardt, Agnes Martin, James Turrell, Vija Celmins, Gerhard Richter… the list could go on and on and is ever evolving. I now pay close attention to my response to looking at others’ work, waiting for that moving and electric quality of art that truly resonates with you, which grounds you in the moment of seeing and feeling, and which part of you wishes you had made yourself. This kind of experience is the closest thing to a compass for inspiration in my own practice that I’ve found. If you see it and it hurts a little (or maybe a lot), that’s generally a good sign to keep exploring.
If I could recommend a single book right now it would be The Creative Act by Rick Rubin. I adored reading it and found it to be helpful and inspiring to art and life in general. Just get it, trust me!
While teaching photography classes at Stanford, what important takeaways did you hope students gained from your time together?
In no particular order-
Photograph what’s “close”, what you know.
Spend a LOT of time looking at books in the library and work in museums, especially when starting out and especially during an “artistic slump”. Never allow yourself to be threatened by the work of others – embrace the resonance and inspiration that comes with seeing art you love or wish you’d made yourself, and channel that energy into your own work.
Know when to ignore the outside world and listen to what your inner voice is telling you (this is extremely hard to do but gets easier with practice). Make a ton of work. You’re always “on” as an artist, whether you’ve got a camera in hand or not. EVERYTHING has the potential for inspiration. Stay open to that, and even when the inspiration feels non-existent, making work helps to find it. At Mass Art I was in the routine of needing 8 final prints on the wall for crit every week. That is a heck of a work ethic to get ingrained from the start. Build a community with classmates and other artists. They’ll be around long after the university isn’t.
Can you describe a photographically challenging situation that you were confronted with that you were able to resolve on the fly?
Here are a couple, although “On the fly” might be more in the timeline of months or years.
How to exhibit large dark prints that leave the viewer feeling like they are experiencing the world at night, in near darkness, versus looking out at the world from a window at night. This meant exhibiting the prints without traditional glazing in the frames. I had hoped this would be simple with all my experience from the lab but as I prepared for my first solo show in NYC it turned out I needed to invent my own method entirely. It took me many months and countless rolls of paper to figure out how to lacquer prints to be durable and archival enough to be exhibited and sold without glazing (my gallerist has apparently poured wine on my prints as a demonstration of their durability!). Funny how something as simple as wanting to make pictures communicating the feeling of night can lead to a spray booth in your backyard and the skills to paint a car.
Wind is another constant challenge for me in many locations. Long exposures, with big cameras, on cliff faces in inclement weather is not a good recipe to get the detail in a file that I’m after. Patience and time and a few tricks often help out though – BIG umbrellas to block the wind, a tether from the tripod to my foot on the ground usually do the trick. It was a LOT harder doing this with an 8×10 camera than it is now with a digital back, but movement is movement. Thankfully it doesn’t cost $30+ every click of the shutter now.
Photographers often have interesting relationships with their equipment. How do you see the role of the equipment you use in the work you produce?
I’m picky about equipment and while there is a bit of a nerdy, techy part to this, it really comes down to me wanting the equipment to feel transparent when I’m out making work. It doesn’t work for me if I have to question the tools and their ability to capture the scene in the way I’m hoping for. If I’m thinking about parallel film planes, focus accuracy, exposure, and all that kind of camera stuff while I’m out in the world then my attention is in the wrong place and not on the subject. For better or worse, this has resulted in a pension for exhaustive research, testing, and exacting standards when it comes to the equipment I use and how I use it.
To this day I’m always playing with my camera while watching TV or movies in the evening. I adjust movements and focus, rotate backs, all that camera stuff, in the dark with only touch as a guide. That makes it so I can work quickly when needed, even in the dark or bad weather, guided by the muscle memory I’ve acquired over the years. Plenty of jokes have been made about my “love affair with cameras” while watching family movies. What can I say?
What is your favorite underrated photographic tool? Why?
This changes depending on the work I’m making, but recently the umbrella and tripod tether I mentioned have been mandatory. And always a comfortable pack to get the gear around without hurting your body. Sore shoulders and back are never helpful in seeing clearly.
Oh! Almost forgot – I often have a dark cloth on hand, a carryover from my 8×10 years. While I don’t usually need it to see an illuminated screen, being able to remove all distractions and focus only on what the lens is seeing is often invaluable. I’ve also been known to have the screen flipped upside down so the image is more like a view camera. There’s just something about seeing the world in an abstracted way that helps me to be more impartial in my composition.
Knowing your work is intended to be produced on a large scale print, how does this influence your photographic process?
The work I applied to Stanford with was all 8×10” contact prints, so I haven’t always been making 60×80” prints like I do now. But in some ways, whether the print is 8×10” or 60×80” the considerations feel similar in that scale is a huge part of the way we experience and interpret any work of art. I just know what I hope to learn from a print on the wall and I guess I’m a glutton for detail and super smooth tonal ranges. I personally don’t want to think about “photography” as a medium when looking at a picture of mine on the wall and I don’t really want that to be on the minds of my audience either. Something as simple as eliminating grain helps tremendously to this end. That was what led me to view cameras in the first place – the ability to allow important details of the image to be much smaller in the frame, allowing the viewer to discover them on their own, rather than hitting them over the head right from their first view of the print.
The act of discovery by someone viewing a print of mine is a really important part of the experience, and to me that means having prints that can hold up at “nose distance”. That term is joked about in that often only photo nerds look at prints that way, but when I saw very much not-photographers looking at my prints like this at exhibitions and art fairs I knew I had achieved what I was hoping for. This extreme proximity translates into a deeply personal experience and one that’s imperative to the success of the work I create.
Why did you select Capture Integration as your equipment partner?
It’s been a while now, but I followed the blog and helpful tech articles Capture Integration has published, and this eventually led to me calling up and getting in touch with Steve Hendrix. I knew by the end of that conversation that I had found someone who was able to really listen, and truly had the expertise to translate the way I wanted my final work to look into the equipment that could effectively produce that result. My god, the number of hours Steve has spent on the phone with me talking about adapted lenses, tech camera particulars, occasional unexpected problems… you name it, Steve is there with the patience of a saint.
I’m imagining the grins on Steve and Brad’s faces when I admit that I’m a picky guy when it comes to the equipment side of photography. This team helped put those tools in my hands in the first place, and have always been there to help when inevitable issues pop up. I’m not sure I ever expected a relationship like this in a “camera dealer”, and I guess in some ways I consider the team there to be much more than that.
Images courtesy of Robert Koch Gallery and Sasha Wolf Projects