Jason Eskenazi is a great guy and one of the best photographers most people haven’t heard of. I look to him as a role-model even as I question some of his life decisions. Maybe that’s because I’m not willing to make some of the sacrifices he’s made (just thinking about living with my parents when I’m in my forties gives me nightmares).
Jason and I sat down recently and had a nice chat about his youth, his job as security guard at the Metropolitan Museum and his book “Wonderland.”
If you haven’t purchased “Wonderland” yet, you’re missing out. It is one of my favorite books and I pick it up to look at time and time again. There is a link to purchase it at the end of the post. Buy a copy before they’re sold out.
best – James Pomerantz
When did you first start photographing?
When I was eight years old at my brother’s Bar Mitzvah I would follow the photographer around as an assistant. I didn’t photograph. I was just fascinated by the photographer and what he did and how he was working. Maybe it showed me that important things need to be photographed.
So when did you first photograph with a non-invisible camera?
When my father bought me a Cavalier camera, which was a knock off Pentax. Probably when I was in high school. I was about 16. I started to photograph for the Bayside, Queens High School yearbook. I remember photographing a black girl sitting in front of me and she turned around and said “ you have beautiful green eyes” and I think that hooked me on photography as a way of getting closer to people. Going to an integrated school really helped me want to get out of Queens. At Queens College, I was the photo editor for the yearbook and shooting for the Queens Tribune newspaper and assisting photographers. And hanging out in the Village with Europeans made me want to get out of New York. Photography was always the link from one step to the next, which finally got me on a plane to Berlin in 1990. My mother laughs about it because I used to get carsick.
Were you a shy teenager?
Yes, absolutely, I didn’t speak. Speaking is a chore. It’s my dream to marry a deaf girl. I find it hard to try to make myself be understood through words. I get tired of long conversations…see, I’m having trouble now.
Back then were you assisting any photographers who are still around?
I was just lugging equipment and changing light bulbs for color temperature and being a Polaroid stand-in for an interior design photographer.
I was meandering around, working in darkrooms. One of the bigger projects I did when I was in my twenties was photographing parking lots at music concerts…The Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen, heavy metal bands…
What sort of music were you listening to?
Springsteen, that sort of stuff.
Springsteen? Were you Born to Run?
The line in Thunder Road is something like “I’m puling out of here to win”…I thought I had to get out of here (Queens, New York…). Then after the Berlin Wall fell, I couldn’t sit still anymore. I thought, I have to go out and take photos of world events to show people what was happening. I wanted to see what the Berlin Wall looked like. I wanted to see things for myself. My first trip, I decked myself in a Robert Capa jacket.
So you had looked at Capa’s Work?
No, I wouldn’t say that. I just didn’t know how to go about being an international photographer, but I thought I should look the part. So I had maybe seen photos of Capa, or other international photojournalists and I bought the jacket, like an army jacket, but more of a photo jacket. Nothing fancy, just a lot of pockets. A pocket for film, a press I.D. pocket on the breast…
Any Love Interests back then to go along with Capa Jacket?
I had an Ingrid Bergman-esque girlfriend that I left behind.
So your first trip to Berlin…What were you packing, what was your plan?
My plan was to just walk the wall…to be there…to be close to where history was unfolding. I had a Nikon F3, I think it was. Kodak Tri-x film. Maybe I had a leica? I had a Leica M6 since the late 80s. In Berlin, I started to meet photographers. I met Tony Suau there and I met Nina Rucker, a wonderful woman who was from East Berlin. I learned everything from other photographers. I’m sure I had a latent talent, but I learned on the ground.
There was innocence there. I remember walking in East Berlin and a young girl came up and asked me to help zip up her jacket. That was something you would never do in the west. I was blown away by that little thing. Reagan had taught me about Communism and the Evil Empire, and we had grown up learning about the East West divide.
After Berlin, I went to Bucharest, Romania where they were having the first democratic elections and I met more photographers. I saw a Turnley brother there on the back of a truck photographing demonstrators. The sun was going through his hair and he looked like an angel in command of the scene, photographing this momentous chain of events. We were following the dominos as they fell from country to country. It was my first Turnley sighting. I didn’t know who he was but I knew he was important. I probably didn’t even realize there were two of them until years later.
And after Romania?
I came back to New York and then headed to Russia in June of 1991.
And that was the beginning of Wonderland?
No, not the concept.
But the earliest photos in the book are from that period?
Yes, those photos I took then were part of the Wonderland archive.
What is the earliest photo in Wonderland?
1990 from the Berlin Wall.
So 1991, in Russia. You were in Moscow?
I was living in Moscow. I met some Russian photographers through Nina.
Was Nina just a friend?
Yes. She was going out with another photographer, Sacha Hartgers…He was very Capa-esque.
I went to Siberia. I was just shooting. I was connected to some media outlets but I just wanted to take pictures.
How were you funding all of this?
I had saved money from working in darkrooms, assisting photographers.
I had a romantic notion. Every time I would go somewhere I would make a little book with contacts, and the local AP office and phone numbers to fall back on just in case I got in trouble. I was in Russia for 3 months on my own money to shoot. And when I came back to New York I showed the work to the agency Impact Visuals and they sold it. They had certain credos. You always had to shoot people from below to give them dignity. It was a left-wing agency. They had an office on 25th street or something but it was mostly run by young people with ideologies. They did sell one of my first pictures in Vanity Fair of the Berlin Reunification.
I tried taking assignments, but I knew I didn’t want to be a magazine photographer. That fast paced, deadline world…I was pretty quickly turned off by that. And I also started to figure out that actually I was less interested in the direct information of events and started to take a step back. Instead of photographing someone suffering, I would step back and include someone looking at the suffering, and then I would take another step back and include myself somehow in the frame, not literally, but emotionally. And that’s how I got started. Even though my photographs might be about a place or a country, ultimately my photos are my life biography.
So as I embark on my trip in two days to Cairo, it will be me with my backpack and some Tri-x film and I’ll just “walk the wall.”
The photo book always seemed like the ideal outlet. I studied 19th Century literature and I was always taken by the novels of Thomas Hardy, by the characters. I feel like the people in my photographs are characters, people who I want to get closer to understanding.
Do you think you can come to understand someone through photographs?
I can come to understand myself. I’m just using the people. I’m seeing what they mean to me and using them and their situations to better understand my life.
So what is Wonderland about? Is it about Russia or is about you?
It’s about Russians on one level, the history, what things looked like then. It’s a faithful document in the way that nothing is really manipulated, but it’s a subjective view. I don’t feign objectivity. It’s totally subjective.
So by manipulated you mean?
I didn’t orchestrate anything in the frame, just the framing itself.
Wonderland is about nostalgia, choices, missed chances, the search for life… the finding of love and the loss of love. For me it is the metaphor of the Soviet Union.
But it’s also about you.
What was happening in the Soviet Union historically, I saw in personal terms.
But what do you feel have been your missed chances? Hold that question. Back to Russia…
The Soviet Union collapsed while I was there. Once it fell apart, I would just go to the airport and get on an internal flight to Tbilisi in Georgia. I had a press card and could fly for a few dollars. Some places declared independence but the structures were still in place so you could still go everywhere. Tbilisi, Lithuania…wherever there was a flight, just for a few days.
Do you like flying?
I hate traveling. I don’t like getting there, I like being there. My father hated to travel, that’s why we never went anywhere when I was a kid. No family trips. Maybe Puerto Rico once…but I got sick.
So, the photos in Wonderland were made over a 10-year period. At what point did you say “this is a book”?
In 1995 or ‘96, I was walking with a friend and he asked what I was going to do with the photographs. I thought about what Russians would do. How would Russians tell their story? The format of the fairytale seemed to be important to the Russians. I had collected copies of Soviet fairy tales.
Were you receiving any grants at this point?
In ‘93 or ‘94 I received one or two thousand dollars from The Village Voice. The first big grant came in ’96, The Alicia Patterson Foundation Grant. I was free to do what I wanted for more than a year. But I took a break. I didn’t go to Russia for most of ‘93, ‘94 and ‘95. The Guggenheim and Lange-Taylor were in ‘99. At the point I had totally formulated what I wanted the book to look like. I was making book dummies in 1998 or so which pretty much looked like the book now, just fewer photos. But the feel, the fairy tale, was all there. Wonderland was set by 2001. I first showed it at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2002 and even though people liked it, it was a book that couldn’t make money.
I first met you in 2005 in Bethlehem looking for the best place to eat chicken. When did you start traveling to the Middle East and other places?
In 2004, Kids With Cameras gave me a grant to run a workshop for Arab and Jews in Jerusalem.
How long were you there for?
Initially for four months and then back in 2005 for another four months.
And how were you supporting yourself at this stage?
I had a Fulbright to go back to Russia. I was living back in Queens with my mother so I didn’t have to pay the rent. The Fulbright was for something completely different, which I didn’t particularly like or understand – large format portraits.
So by 2006 you had won some of the most prestigious grants and awards in photography. Would you say you were a successful photographer?
Well success for me is having enough money to take pictures and turn them into books. And also having respect from fellow photographers is important to me. I wanted to be in the big leagues. I applied to Magnum a few times and tried to fit in with the big guys, but I didn’t.
Why didn’t you fit in?
I don’t know. Well, I remember comments like “you’re too old and too late”. Maybe because I’m ultimately not verbally expressive so people think I want to be left alone.
So going back to Missed Chances…? Would you say Magnum?
No, that taught me that Magnum was not the place for me. I don’t regret it.
You worked as a Security Guard at the Metropolitan Museum starting in March 2008. How did that come about?
My brother said he had seen ads for museum guards and he said, “give it a try”.
The photo industry had changed, but it hadn’t affected me as I didn’t depend on assignments. For some psychological reason, I couldn’t photograph anything I didn’t really care about. Photography was pure for me and I couldn’t corrupt it. Shooting things I didn’t care about would consume me and I would lose what I loved about photography. I couldn’t do that. I would have lost myself. So getting a job that was not in photography was more appealing to me than shooting assignments I didn’t care about. And it was a way to slow down, to reevaluate. It was only afterwards that I realized it was a torture chamber of death to the spirit by unrelenting standing. The guards suffer there and I saw their creativity withering. I cared about their plight and wanted to create a forum to win back some of what they lost when they took the job. So with four other guards I created a forth-coming magazine called “Swipe.” The first issue is called “Guards’ Matter.” It’s a magazine showcasing the creativity of workers in jobs that don’t encourage self-expression.
So how long did you work there?
20 months. And I took advantage of the health insurance and saw every doctor I could.
Clean bill of health?
Was there anything you loved about working at the Met?
The camaraderie…the teamwork…people watching…learning about the art…meeting Tony Bennett.
You guarded Robert Frank’s The Americans?
I had myself switched to the section. The room was carpeted and easier to stand in.
I had never really studied The Americans. Every photographer had the book but I had never sat down and looked at it too deeply. So only in that exhibition was I totally enveloped inside the maze of that sequence, every single day. I got to know those photos intimately.
I would think it’s both a blessing and curse to have to look at those photographs every day. On the one hand they’re amazing photographs to discover. But I would think they would also remind you of the world outside. It’s a bit masochistic to make yourself see those photos every day when you want nothing more than to be free to go shoot.
Right, the force created by the photos was enough to get me to throw in the towel at the museum and go out to make photographs again. But I knew what I was doing. I was facing myself when I looked at those photos. I associated with Frank deeply. I saw him as a poor, Jewish shlump just like myself who just wanted to make photos. I connected with him. I wanted to know him. I talked to people who came in to the galleries. People gave me tidbits of information “did you know about this? Did you know that photo…?” I became friendly with the curator and always listened to him when he came in. I knew I was going to leave and I knew I had to stoke the fire to make it so unbearably hot that I had to get out. Taking pictures is the only thing I really enjoy doing.
You just came back from Turkey. It was your first international shooting trip in how long?
Four almost five years.
How did it feel?
I was “walking the wall”, just like back in Berlin…I just went out and found interesting things.
What interests you about that part of the world?
My grandparents are from that part of the world. Sephardic Jews. And as part of my biography, I wanted to go see the world they left behind, although it’s not that world as it’s changed so much. They were brave taking that journey across the sea to America and I wanted to go back to where they came from. It’s another part of my biography, a second book, a continuum of Wonderland in some ways. Different cultures, but for me, a continuation in this work I’m calling “The Black Garden.”
And in two days you go to Cairo? For the same work?
Yes, basically I’m just going to different places to get more material. So I can begin to put it together and apply for some grants.
My main body of work is biographical and forms these three books, “Wonderland”, “The Black Garden” and a third unnamed book. A trilogy of books in the same mode that will be my biography. I want them to be read like Kieslowski’s films, “Red,” “White” and “Blue”. They work separately but they’re a continuum. Similarly, there’s a thread through these books.
And now “Wonderland” is published…a second edition in about one year. But it wasn’t easy making it happen, right?
The book was lying around. I was determined to get it published. I knew a publisher and I liked how he designed books and I thought it would be a good fit. He said, like everyone else, “I like the photos, I love the book, but I can’t make money with this. You have to bring some money to the table.” I had in my back pocket someone who might consider helping to fund the book if I had a publisher. So I brought them together. A non-profit gave me money to help support the publication. The book was delayed for over year, I don’t know why. Then when it was published, the 1500 edition run didn’t happen, only 712 copies were printed. Legal negotiations took place with Lawyers For The Arts but nothing really happened. I was still working at the museum. I had managed to get the book into the Met bookstore. I knew that was a good story and a bit of funny irony. But I really wanted my work in the Met collection so that I would be guarding my own work. How funny would that have been? Anyway, it sold out a few times at the Met Bookstore. So, NPR did a little story: “there’s a guard at the Metropolitan Museum who has a book at the bookstore.”
So how did the second edition happen?
I tried to find other ways to republish. The publisher of the first run didn’t care about the rights so he gave me those back. James Estrin of The New York Times got in touch and said he wanted to do a Lens Blog about me, but it took about 6 months to get that online. But I also knew that would be another story. I told Jim the story about working at the Met and the dilemma of trying to decide to use the $10,000 I had saved to reprint the book or go on a trip to make new work. When Lens Blog ran the story, a friend from many years ago called and said, “I’ll give you $10,000 to reprint Wonderland.”
I’ve created my own little publishing company Redhook Editions. For me, it’s about taking back control. Usually, you buy your film, your camera, your plane ticket, you take the photos, you develop, you edit…but then you give the work to a publisher who takes control. Now I do it all. I distribute it myself. I get the orders, I pack the books, I go to the post office. I’ve paid off half of the $10,000 loan and within a month I’m hoping to have paid the rest. I’ve probably sold about 300 copies.
It seems like you haven’t always chosen the path of least resistance, but you seem happy with the choice you’ve made. Is that fair?
No, not happy, there were just no other choices for me to make. I didn’t choose the path of least resistance; there was only one path for me. I always feel like I’m treading water, not swimming. I’m not happy about everything, but I don’t regret anything either. Advice? Lessons learned? I didn’t choose between taking a high road or a low road. One of the earliest lessons I learned was that I wasn’t saving the world, but I was saving myself through photography. There’s no easy way out. You have to go through these things to create something honest and meaningful. Every photographer has to “Walk the Wall.”
Thanks Jason! Happy travels in Cairo!
Buy “Wonderland” HERE. It’s less than $40 and it’s money very well spent.