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Interview with Rondal Partridge Friday, Aug. 29, 2008

By Traci Hukill

[So you used to come to Santa Cruz as a kid?]
I did, and I enjoyed the boardwalk and being a smartass sonofabitch, guys kept givin' things away and my twin brother and I figured out we didn't want kewpie dolls or polar bears, so we started catching goldfish with those games, you know, Japanese paper and a disc. We caught so many goldfish. You'd turn in one you'd get two more chances. We were trying to get rid of goldfish, we had so many.

[Who were you visiting?]
There's an Italian family on Empire Grade, a little farmhouse, they took in kids for the summer. He was a cook from the first world war; she was a nurse. She was one of the most knowledgeable women in the world I've ever known. She didn't take 'em after puberty, so everyone there was nine to twelve. Sometimes they crossed over the line and she knew how to handle everything. Firenze, Foretix -- you oughta look 'em up.

I went one day--I tell you what he did. He had a pickup truck and there were flower fields north of Watsonville, south of Santa Cruz. Those were Italian people who came to work originally in World War II, at the cement plant -- Cowell Cement Company. So we used to load up his Model T truck with kids and we'd go shoutin' and yellin' and sometimes work in those farms. We were just kids, but we worked. There in the middle we had boxes of pears and in the bottom of every box was a bottle of old grappa. He sold grappa. Depression, survival! The point wa we enjoyed the liberation of the Italian migrants, who were earthy, honest. Everybody got a glass of watered wine for lunch. We had horses that went around and around, we'd get so dusty, they'd throw us in the horse trough and dry us off and bring us in for lunch!

It was the most amazing, primitive peasant life--it's different from our Christian morals, which have been taken seriously. These people did not take these lessons too much to heart. They really didn't. They had a great time.

So ask me some questions. I'm rambling enough. Ask me something.

[The portraits of 'Potato Field Madonna' and John Werneke are really powerful...]
I can't hear you. Are you on a cell phone?

[No. Is this better?]
No. It must be this thing I'm on. I'm going to get on a different phone and you call me back. Evidently the new age of batteries is really stupid. They pollute the atmosphere and the soil and we wreck our ears just for mobility...

[Call back. 'Potato Field Madonna' and 'John Werneke' are very powerful portraits. You seem to have captured something essential about both those subjects. How did you engage them?]
Let me ramble. The reason that I photographed -- I take photographs that I see that mean something to me without going through the filter of whether they're profitable, popular or reproductive of someone else's work. In other words, I don't make magazine covers. I have made magazine covers, I've done it for money--I know what it's about. But I don't do it. For instance, I may photograph every dead fish I see for a week and then once a month for the rest of the year, and at the end of the year I will have assembled my personal thoughts on it.

Take the potato picture--this is a very young woman in a very tough business in the [Central] Valley at the end of the Depression. The fact is that she could be severely endangered and exploited by her youth and good looks and her age. I looked right at her and she looked right at me and I saw her vulnerability. I think it shows her vulnerability. I'm not sure.

I've photographed many people that way. One woman--in Iran one day I walked in to an office building. The boss had left. I looked right at her and said I'm gonna photograph her. I showed it to a friend. He'd seen a lot of photographs of that office building, and I said, what do you see? He says, She's in love with you. I never exploited it.

I found out later why. She was a Persian, a Jain from so India, a very esoteric sect and she had fallen in love with an American pilot who had red hair. What happened is I walked into the office with red hair. She was going to get married in 10 days to her office boss who was out of town. And I could have exploited it but I didn't. I had in my goods from Southern India, a jewelry that included a headband, necklace and earrings, made by peasants out of glass and silver. I came back to Persia on her wedding day. At the wedding dinner, presented this with a wedding gift. She burst into tears because it was made in her home town.

[Where is the photo?]
I never exploited it. I never developed it, never showed it. There's a theme that develops after you photograph something enough times. When you find it, unbelievably, you should quit, or you'll exploit it. You're apt to repeat yourself, seek aggrandizement and seek popularity.

That is the secret of my failure. That is the secret why I'm not rich and famous and not Annie Liebowitz -- she is a very good photographer, so am -- but she has concentrated on doing things that will make her famous. And succeeded.

I'll tell you what photography is. It's the greatest teacher. There are the greatest lessons to be learned, the greatest observations if you use photography and don't exploit it. If you use it to learn. Use it as a lesson to learn. I can see on television a guy who's lying. There's a twitch that you almost can't believe in the corner of the mouth, every time when a guy's trying to put something over on you.

[What about 'John Warneke'?]
John Paul Warneke was a famous architect. I walked into his office and told him, pay me $50 a day I'll photograph anything. I was in his office one day and had collected an 1875 camera. It had a very fine lens for the day, but no film. He said, I need a portrait right away. So I went down and bought some [?] and went back to the office and I said, sit down. And I put that camera on a chair for a quadropod and had a lens that could open and close and pointed it in his direction, very carefully, focused it and went click click and one shot, that was it. That was the result of it.

But it is a definitive portrait. You know the image with the guy sitting there in the corner, his fingers are interlaced over his knee and sort of a halo of light around his head? They called that Rembrandt lighting. Those are portraits but they are pictorial. That I have avoided, with a few exceptions, photographs that imitate in composition or color -- matter off fact, I avoid color for that very reason -- or conscience [sic]. The photographer has conscientiously told people to do things. I very rarely tell people to do anything, only in most extreme circumstances. I only tell 'em FREEZE! Don't move a goddam little bit! I did that with a girl next door, told her freeze, came home and loaded my camera with film and went back and I found her just like she was when I left.

[In the exhibit at the Museum of Art and History you're quoted on one of the panels saying 'Ansel (Adams) was like a father to me.']
'Ansel was like a father to me...' Mmm, I don't know if I said that. I did everthing opposite of what my father instructed me to do. He told me not to get married until I had $5,000 in the bank, was 30 years old and an annuity of $75 a month. This was the bottom of the Depression! The impossibility... [laughs]. I got married, I had seven dollars and twelve cents--that's all. No car. No this, no that. Nothing--and I'm still married to the same person. So this is a matter of observation of life...

I much admired Ansel, I much enjoyed Ansel all his life. He was extraordinary. He drank without getting maudlin or angry -- he was a happy drunk. He had a lesson to everybody: get up in the morning and photograph before anyone else is up.

He adhered to a bunch of pictorial rules, but he was best pictorialist in the world... drove me crazy, I didn't believe any of it. Never, with the exception of that picture of Yosemite, have I photographed anything like that... he never photographed a nude, never photographed dirt, never photographed a dirty barb wire fence, automobiles or any of those things. And all of those things I do. So he's not like a father -- like a father in the respect that I never tried to phtograph like he did. And there are THOUSANDS of little Ansels in this world. I can look at exhibits and say, Oh ho, he took an Ansel workshop. But they photograph with inputs outside of their natural observations.

They don't photograph the dirty things, the accidents, and this is what life consists of! It consists of pollution and disorder. Human nature -- they're going to eliminate humans in this world within a few hundreds years or less by the very fact that we haven't been able to move on what we observe. When water gets dirty and we pollute it every day and the skies get dirty, all in the name of progress, which is a dirty word for success which is a dirty word for pollution...

Enough about Ansel. I was being polite. I had the greatest respect for Ansel's technical ability and even his insistence that his photographs made for conservation -- but he had big faults and tremendous faults. He -- because of the nature of his father's business failing, he had a tremendous admiration of people who made money. I mean, I don't care who they were, but if they made a lot of money. Eliot porter, okay? Photographer, not very good. Made a lot of money. Took Ansel's workshop. Oh, he thought he was something.

Now about Dorothea, this whole conversation now goes around. Because Dorothea, raised up on the pictorial grasp on photographic society, escaped the hold of the fellow photographers and became an individual. And now the question is how did she become individual? She became individual because her father walked out -- everything goes down to goddam psychiatry, I don't care what it is. Her father walked out on her, her mother had to struggle. She was -- although they lived in Hoboken, they moved to the Bowery. She could observe the depths of society, the drunk on the street, and survive it and not become bitter.

She said, Ron, I love Market Street. You can walk up Market Street and down the other side and hear 32 foreign languages.

Dorothea and I went out long before [her commission by the] Farm Security [Administration] because she always worked with someone. I carried her 4 x 5, she loved the flux of migrants and understood by observing them -- she observed all her life, it influenced her photographs and influenced her thinking.

[FSA Historical Section director Roy] Stryker did a great benefit by distributing photographs free to the press. It was part of our surviving. But his culture was to suck ass on the government, to make government happy, not to make the people happy.

Dorothea, working with the government, her aim was to make the plight of the people easier.

She really made her own decisions. Her whole life. And I knew her from the time I was born, literally. I was a week old, anyway. I was associated with her all my life. And she has influenced me more than anyone. But I haven't tried to copy her way of photographing.

I'm convinced you can make photographs or you can make money, but you can't make both.

[There's a peripatetic quality to your body of work -- there are photographs of migrants, then photographs of dancers, feet, birds in glass, like you were doing anything that interested you at the moment. Do you consider yourself disciplined?]
[Laughs.] No, I do not. If you're disciplined, you do the same goddam thing over and over again until you're good at it. I quit. I'm finished photographing birds in glass.

I consider myself an unconscious photographer. I photograph things that mean something to me or hit me somewhere or amuse me or anger me. If I could photograph a tire bursting from a car going too fast, I would. I'm trying to expose things. The only way I know how to do that is two dimensional. I use black and white photography as language, an essay, a revelation. That's what I do. And it's all I do.

If someone wants to come along and buy something, I'm not good at that.

[You did some architecture photography for money but mostly did your own thing. And you had five kids. How did you cope with the financial pressure?]
FORTUNATELY, in a minimal way, my wife had some jobs on and off. And I have an ability to exist on very little mney. Part of it's being born and rasied up in the Depression. I'm capable of buying 10 pounds of rice at once at a ridiculous price and eating a lot of rice. And it doesn't bother me not to have things.

I spent a year in New York as a journalist publishing in Time, Life, Fortune, Harpers Bazaar. And I had one camera, a Rolex. Almost anyone in journalism spends a lot of money on cameras: Leicas, telephoto lenses. I figured out y ou do the best you can with what you have and you can beat people with an 8 x 10.

And then I didn't want to do journalism anymore. I was offered $30,000 from Look to be a documentary photographer and I asked 'em straight up, what am I gonna document?

They said, 'You're gonna take a high school boy, photograph him washing his father's car, he's gonna borrow it for prom and wreck it. We're gonna pay for it.' I was making $4,000 a year and I said, 'Thank you, good night. That's not documentary to me.'

I was pals with Eugene Smith in NewYork at Black Star. He made a script for documentary films, just like you make a storyboard for movie -- those mourners in Spain were hired. I was there when he did those things and I wouldn't do it.

And that's the difference between me and other people and that's the only difference. You kowtow to the establishment or you don't. Now you can get angry and join the Communist Party -- or you can photograph it. I photographed it.

[What will you talk about in Santa Cruz?]
I have no idea. My daughter made up some slides, but they're of me! I say, What's the use in that?

... Right now photographer is bending a very strange direction. In the New York Times, they have some kind of editors... the way things are going is to these panoramic pictures. I started making panoramic pictures in the 50s. I entered a contest. The San Francisco Chronicle documentary contest, put in a whole bunch of panramics of beautiful places and then panoramics of ugly places. They're pregnant with information, because you have this 180 degree sweep. They rejected my submissions on that basis that I was professional.

So from that I learned not to enter contests.

RONDAL PARTRIDGE speaks Thursday, Sept. 4 at 7pm at the Museum of Art and History Auditorium, 705 Front St., Santa Cruz. His exhibition, From the Byways to the Highways: Rondal Partridge Photographs California 1936-1969, closes on Sept. 7.

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