Lou Stoumen

Converging Forces: An Interview with Lou Stoumen

By Janis Bultman

Published in Darkroom Photography, December 1981; Photo Metro, February 1992; and in Legacies: Interviews with Masters of Photography from Darkroom Photography Magazine, 2018.
Lou Stoumen, 1982. Photo by Kurt Fishback.
Lou Stoumen, 1982. Photo by Kurt Edward Fishback.

Poet, street photographer, and Academy Award winning filmmaker Lou Stoumen has never respected conventional boundaries between the arts. He smuggled still photography into filmmaking, collecting two Oscars in the process when he was the first to “animate” photographs in motion pictures. Lately, he’s been defying border guards again, bringing filmmaking concepts to still photography. Stoumen often adds a third dimension to the traditionally two-dimensional photographic medium by adding a poetic written “soundtrack” to his still photographs. Audience reaction has typically been varied: photography purists dismiss his “paper movies” as eccentric mutations, while the less conservative praise them as “unique to the point of establishing a new form.”

JB: When did you start making paper movies?

LS: As a boy. I made the first one when I was twenty, in 1939, and I’ve made five since. I’ve always worked with text and pictures—words and photographs.

JB: You’ve written that the paper movie’s prototype is the “homely family photo album.” Is the paper movie solely a book?

LS: Well, in its primary form it’s a book, but it’s nice to have it in a fast form, like an exhibit.

JB: When I looked through your most recent book, Ordinary Miracles, I was struck by the way the juxtaposition of photographs and text gives the viewer a kind of double treat. The photo catches the eye first, so you look at it and react to it. Then the text catches the eye and often gives the photo a whole new twist.

LS: I’m glad you appreciate that. There is a lot of resistance to putting words and pictures together, particularly from museum and gallery directors. Often, they’ll give photographers a whole wall of photographs with a tiny little text block way over to the side. I don’t like that. I like the relation between words and pictures. I think that’s the way the mind works. We’re verbal, and we’re visual.

JB: When you exhibit your paper movie photographs, does the text accompany them?

LS: If I have anything to say about it, yes.

JB: Why would an exhibitor object to including the text?

LS: Well, they have this pure attitude—and I respect it, it’s one way to go—that the photograph has to do it all. Indeed, a photograph does have a great power all by itself. It’s an object of contemplation, meditation. But so often a photograph by itself has a way of just sitting there. I like the additional dimension my writing, anybody’s writing, gives a photograph.

JB: In Ordinary Miracles you often write about why you took a certain photograph, so that the viewer can draw on not only on his or her own personality in reacting to the photo, but the photographer’s as well.

LS: Yes, and that’s what these museum people object to. They feel the photographer’s personality should be irrelevant. I think a lot of current exhibition practices are kind of snotty and elitist in that respect.

JB: What was your first paper movie like?

LS: I’ll show it to you, but I’d prefer you didn’t read it. It’s a long narrative, political/sensual thing. My first, sort of, statement. I don’t know that it’s poetry. It’s really juvenilia. I kept text and photographs in separate sections.

JB: Why did you keep them separate?

LS: I didn’t yet have a hold of the paper movie form where text and photographs interact. I made the second during World War II. I was in the army, in India, Burma, and China, working on the Army magazine, Yank. I saw that a lot of good photography was being done and thought, why not turn it into a book? So I put together Yank’s Magic Carpet. We printed 25,000 and they sold out instantly in the PX. We went through three more editions—a total of about 100,000 copies. One-third to one-half the photographs and all the text are mine. It’s really a book for homesick G.I.s.

JB: How does a paper movie usually evolve? Do you do the photography first, then write the soundtrack, or vice versa?

LS: It has always taken me years to do a book. I stew about it and work on it on and off. In contrast, my latest project has been a remarkable experience. Including the photography, it’s all been done in the past six months. It just came on me in a rush. To answer your question by its example, I didn’t set out to do a book at all. I simply began doing a different kind of photography with a smaller camera. The body of work grew out of my concerns about ecology and nuclear weapons, and there seemed to be a unity to it. I suddenly said to myself, “Hey! This is a book!” Then I began writing text. I’d already taken three-fourths of the photographs. As the book’s form evolved, I discovered I wanted a photograph of this and a photograph of that, so I went out and made them.

JB: You mentioned that you started using a different camera. What kind?

LS: Up until recently I’ve always used a larger format camera. There are only two 35mm images in Ordinary Miracles. Then the little Olympus XA came into my life. I really got it for making visual notes, because it’s so compact, and I can take it everywhere I go so easily. You can literally carry it in your breast pocket.

I was amazed by the image quality. It’s not quite as sharp as bigger 35mm cameras and lenses, and the lens has a property of vignetting the corners of the print a bit. I don’t think it will give elegant 16×20 prints, although here I’m guessing. I haven’t tried that yet. But I took all the photographs for the new book with it, including the cover photograph, which is now one of my favorites. The nice thing about the camera is people don’t take me seriously when I’m shooting with it.

JB: That brings us to the subject of street photography. In the essay printed at he back of Ordinary Miracles, you write, “I am a street photographer and have from boyhood obsessively photographed the people, events, and light of everyday life.” In your experience, what is it about a given scene that makes it a street photographer’s subject?

LS: There are certain things that are interesting—relationships between people, anger and love. That’s what interests me—people in the context of the world, which is usually on the street. I’ve done very little studio photography because I don’t like to set things up. There are certain moments of unrehearsed human life that I feel very passionate about. It’s instant recognition. You sort of smell it. It’s really instant choreography. As a photographer, I orchestrate and organize it all into a photograph.

JB: Do you take a number of shots of such a situation, or do you wait until just the right image is there?

LS: I shoot a little bit more freely now than I used to. I used to use a larger camera, for one thing, and it wasn’t as convenient to take several shots. But on certain photographs you only get one chance. Take “The Butcher.” The man just emerged. A second after the exposure, he saw me, and the moment changed. In street photography, observation often changes the object being observed, which is why it’s often necessary, as in this photograph, to work very fast. You have to get to know your camera so well that you can use it automatically, without spending a lot of time determining exposure, focus, and whatnot.

In the street, you do all your creative work by recognizing the symptoms of a picture about to happen. Because if it’s happening at the moment, you first observe the scene. Maybe you’ll get the picture. But usually, you can’t.

JB: You wrote in Ordinary Miracles that a good photographer really needs only one camera and one lens. Yet, when we passed your darkroom, I noticed a 4×5 enlarger and 35mm enlarger, and in the course of our conversation, you’ve mentioned both large and small format cameras.

LS: I really shot off my mouth about simplicity in that essay. What I was really trying to say is that you don’t need a lot of fancy equipment. When I went to New York as a boy and began doing serious photography, I had one camera and one lens, and I did an extensive body of work. In our consumer society, there’s a tendency for young photographers to think that equipment is going to do it all. They tell themselves, “I can’t really do good work unless I have this camera or that lens.” And it’s not true. Young photographers really need only one camera and one lens.

But lately, I’ve come to understand that you can’t be a conscious primitive. I’m sophisticated enough in terms of my technical knowledge to know that certain kinds of images require certain kinds of tools. This is the first real darkroom I’ve ever had. I’ve always worked in kitchens and closets and bathrooms, on top of the sink. And I now have four cameras and six lenses. I’m finally nicely equipped.

So I guess I was a little deceptive in writing that passage. But as advice to young photographers, I think it’s valid.

JB: How did you discover photography?

LS: When I was a little kid, my mother had a tiny vest-pocket Kodak. I took family snapshots and so on with it but never thought too much about it. Then, when I was ten, a friend came over with a twin lens reflex. I pointed the camera at some trees and looked down into it. What immediately struck me was that for some strange reason the trees I saw through the camera were infinitely more interesting than the trees I saw when I looked up. I didn’t understand why, but I was hooked. I had to have a twin lens reflex.

JB: How did you get involved in filmmaking?

LS: It just seemed a logical next step after working as a writer and a still photographer. I started out as a poet. Then I got hooked on photography. I put together that first book, went to New York, freelanced, and starved. I was constantly hocking my camera. I’d type a story on my typewriter, and then I’d hock the typewriter to redeem the camera. Then, just before the war, I got a job in Puerto Rico, with a real, regular wage, working for the National Youth Administration. I was a photographer and edited the agency journal. Part of my assignment was to make a 16mm film on the work of the agency with young people and venereal disease. Then I went into the army. I didn’t have an opportunity to make films while I was in the army, but I did a lot of still photography and freelance writing. After the war, I went to USC on the G.I. bill and studied film.

JB: Why did you choose to get into filmmaking, rather than continue working in still photography?

LS: Partly it was the money, partly the glamour, and naturally, if you’re a photographer, you want to make films. You reach a larger audience.

I never finished my Master’s thesis at USC because I was offered a chance to photograph my first 35mm film. I did that, then worked in films and in some television for the next twelve years. Then, UCLA invited me to teach film and photography as it relates to film. I’ve been doing that for fourteen years. Now, my heart is pretty much back with still photography and photographic books. I intend to produce a book or an exhibition a year for the rest of my life. I’ve got a backlog of six large projects in the works.

JB: Have you always been so prolific?

LS: Well, I’ve always been productive, but during the past three years, I’ve really experienced an explosion of energy.

JB: You’ve successfully integrated still photography and motion pictures, as well as integrating still photography and writing.

LS: Yes, if there’s some particular value to the work I’ve done in film, it’s that I first used still photographs in motion pictures. Actually, people had used them before, as inserts to give information, but I was the first to use photographs as a director uses a live action scene, with the camera moving into the photograph, cutting to the next, moving across images, and so on. The True Story of the Civil War was made entirely from civil war photographer Matthew Brady’s photographs, as well as those of a few other photographers. I thought this was a most valid way of telling history because instead of dressing people up in costumes and building studio sets, we could really see the actual historical event as it happened one hundred years ago through the eyes of people who were actually there. The film won me my first Academy Award and a little money, but not much. I’ve never made much money with film.

JB: Didn’t you further develop storytelling through still photographs in The Black Fox, a film about the rise and fall of Hitler’s Third Reich, for which you won another Academy Award?

LS: Yes, and in The Naked Eye, a documentary about photography, and particularly about Edward Weston.

JB: It sounds as if you’ve come full circle from still photography to filmmaking, then back to still photography. Why did you stop making films?

LS: Well, eventually I had my own production company with a full-time staff of five. I was very busy, but I didn’t feel creative. I found I was spending ninety-five percent of my time on contracts, lawyers, casting, distribution, and so on, and I didn’t like it. Only five percent of my time was going into creative work. At the same time, I was doing still photography and getting more and more excited about it. So I decided to get out of there. Maybe it was sour grapes, and if someone gave me ten million dollars to make a movie, I’d consider it, but I don’t think so. To make a film takes a year out of your life—most of it spent on peripheral chores.

JB: Are there any photographers who you feel have been particular influences on your work?

LS: Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Walker Evans, who was a very great street photographer. Alfred Stieglitz, who I was fortunate enough to meet shortly before he died. I met Edward Weston in 1946 or 1947. I was much closer to Weston than I was to Stieglitz, who I met just the one time. I spent many days with Weston. As I said, he was the subject of The Naked Eye, but I went to him years before I made the film. I also met Ansel Adams at about the same time and have learned from him ever since.

JB: Have you always sought out photographers you’ve admired?

LS: Yes, I have.

JB: Why?

LS: Well, I guess I first saw their work and then felt it was very important to get a sense of what kind of person would do that kind of work. But I’ll tell you something about this business of admiring other artists. Young writers, photographers, and painters often look at another artist’s work and tell themselves, “I could never do something like that. It’s beyond my capabilities.” Well, the truth is, it isn’t. We’ve all got more talent than we can possibly use. I don’t feel awed by the work of any other contemporary photographer. I did when I was younger. I just told myself I’d do my best, learn from other artists, imitate them, get their vibes, but eventually you go with your own muse.

JB: Do you think you find your own muse by going through the process of imitating?

LS: I think it’s a necessary part of the process. An infant learns by imitating the mother and father. A young artist learns by imitating a master. If you’re a writer, your writing is certainly shaped by what you’ve read, and then, as you progress, you move on into your own style. I first imitated Stieglitz.

JB: Consciously or subconsciously?

LS: Well, maybe neither. I was simply aware of his work while I was working. With Weston, I never worked like him. He used an 8×10 camera with a tripod, and his vision was very different from mine. The principal thing I learned from him was how a photographic artist can live and work, what qualities of dedication or simplicity or passion or range of view are possible. I guess we all have role models, and Edward Weston was one of mine.   Another thing I learned from him is that really good artists and photographers, if they feel truly secure about their own work, can look at someone else’s work that’s very different from their own and understand that this is another way to use the medium. Weston was able to do that with me. I showed him my work, and he gave me very valuable criticism. His door was always open, and I valued that.

JB: One last question, and then we’ll let you get back to your many projects. Why do you photograph in black-and-white rather than color?

LS: There are several factors that keep me away from color. Its archivalness is questionable, for one thing. Everybody’s home snapshots from ten years ago are now faded and ugly, and I don’t want to make pictures that aren’t going to live physically. Also, color is a literal medium. It has to correspond fairly closely to reality—although certain photographers have exaggerated it to good effect—and what I’ve been trying to do, in terms of form and making a photograph really happen, has to do with a certain amount of abstraction or transcendence from the material. In black-and-white, it seems to work better. I can print dark. I can print light. I can work for contrast—all on the same kind of subject matter. And I’ve still got so much to learn about black-and-white. I’m learning all the time.

What it boils down to is this: With the exception of a certain small body of work by a certain few photographers, it seems to me that color photography is always prose and that black-and-white photography has at least the possibility of becoming poetry.

© 1981, 1992, 2015, 2018  Janis Bultman
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