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tanythberkeley1-wwibWriting about photography has never been easy, a fact attested to by the dread most of us feel when we encounter so-called photography critics. There have been some exceptions: Beaumont Newhall and John Szarkowski are rightly lauded, Jonathan Williams was among our most sly essayists in addition to his other talents (poet, publisher and photographer) and Luc Sante is a viable Virgil to the less fashionable aspects of the silver-gelatin world still. As for the cliche-shuffling banality which passes for most art writing, let’s just say we try to not to read it anymore and neither should ya’ll. Even the unavoidable can be eluded, if you’re wily enough.

Long-time Williamsburg resident Tanyth Berkeley is that wily. And though Tanyth has been often lauded by the Serious Art World I’m most suspicious of, you would never guess her stature from conversation— she displays none of affectations of Significance that bedevil not just professional artists but their funhouse mirror hellspawn, the haughty internet photoblogger. (I don’t believe in obscenity per se but there are some things that shouldn’t be said in public, “great composition!” of photographs which reveal no such thing among them.) An extensive selection of Tanyth’s portraiture can be seen at Bellwether Gallery and most recently, she brought “Grace” to Danziger Projects. This is all well and fantastic, as was Tanyth’s part in MOMA’s New Photography 2007 show, but as Anaxagoras suggested, appearances are a glimpse of unseen. Over batidos (morir sonando, mamey and granadillo) across a borrowed dominoes table somewhere in South Williamsburg, our reporter sat down with Tanyth to see what was else was there. —Thirsty Zapto

Brian Berger: [Fumbles with tape recorder as granadillo drips down his chin] Whoa, now that’s what I call batidos! Some people think you’re from California but it’s a lot more complicated than that, isn’t it?

Tanyth Berkeley: I was born in Hollywood but have no real connection to the West Coast; my family is on the East Coast. Before my mom and I settled in New York City though, I lived on a goat farm in Colorado and in Providence, where my mom was going to the Rhode Island School of Design.

Brian: Interesting; I’m doing an interview soon with a New York architect who went to RISD, Joshua Pulver. Have you gone back to Providence at all as an adult?

Tanyth: I did and everything looked so small! tanythberkeley2-wwibI have a lot of great memories from Providence. I remember the old man that lived on our block  who  would put a dime in his tracheaotomy hole and blow it out like a whale for me to catch to buy candy. I was always looking for candy money since my mother, then a macrobiotic, restricted my diet to miso soup and brown rice. I remember chewing gum I found under tables I was a real desperado.

Brian: You grew up in NYC— mostly Manhattan, I believe— in the 1980s, which was a great time to be around in the city. I hope Young Tanyth didn’t take any shots of me of strolling the Deuce back then. That kid with shaggy blonde hair tucked under a Knicks cap wearing maroon Lees and Nike Air Force 1s ducking into the side door of Show World isn’t me, I don’t care what you say.

Tanyth: I moved to the Upper West Side when I was seven. My mother married a painter who had an apartment there, he also had a place in Maine so I spent my summers in the country. It was very beautiful , I was struck by the contrasts of urban life and country living, I went to public school eight months of the year then roamed and picked blueberries for four.

Brian: Maine is a trip: Jonathan Lethem’s father Richard is a highly accomplished painter and he lives in Maine, just as Marsden Hartley did before him. There’s Dick Curless, the great folky country singer whose like the one-eyed Johnny Cash of Maine— he really wore an eyepatch!— and years ago I saw a documentary on Buckminster Fuller with scenes of him rowing off the coast. GO BUCKY!

Anyway, I’m always interested in how people learn things. Did you take a photography class as a kid or study other visual arts? Was anyone in your family interested in photography in a more-than-snapshots way?

Tanyth: There was a copy of  Brassai’s  book Paris at Night in my house when I was growing but that’s it really. Oh and a scary Peter Beard book with a photo of a man half eaten by an alligator. I started shooting because my best friend in high school’s father worked for Kodak and would give us free film and development and prints. Looking back now I realize it was his way of keeping an eye on us. We were basically a juvenile delinquents and reguraly cut school so think it was his way of keeping tabs on us, looking at our photos to see where we have been etc. I have tons of pictures between the ages of 14 and 16 as a result. Some are hilarious, I was into ska back then and dressed as teddy girl. I would go to Danceteria and see Warhol, Karen Finley, the Beastie Boys and Madonna. It was a blast.

Brian: Right on. Did you have any friends who were graffiti writers then or did ya’ll not cross paths then for whatever reasons?

Tanyth: Oh yeah a lot of friends tagged around the city. I can’t remember their tags now but recall seeing  Chris 217 everywhere, fat laces and “Rapper’s Delight” on vinyl.


Brian: Eventually you went to Columbia University and studied with, among others, Thomas Roma, a great Brooklyn artist who seems too little known given his accomplishment. Is that a fair observation or is he—rightly—accorded a a high place in contemporary photography? Anyone else at school you’d consider especially influential?

Tanyth: Dana Hoey drew me to Columbia originally  and continues to deeply inspire me.

Tom is an amazing teacher and has had tons of recognition and is definitely valued and esteemed at Columbia, Yale and by most serious photographers. He was great friend of  and to John Szarkowski, Garry Winogrand and Helen Levitt. He’s really more of a book artist then a “wall” artist  I think and could probably show as much as he wants to. I think too he’s probably suspect of  fame and so keeps a relatively  low profile.  Slow burn.

Brian: Oh, I didn’t know that—I’m very influenced by Szarkowski and Winogrand. Have you ever had a chance to see Helen’s 1948 film, In The Streets ?

Tanyth: Oh yes, I show it to me students at SVA, its wonderful, she had a great,  humanist  spirit.

Brian: Going back to ’80s NYC, I wonder now if I walked right past Robert Frank—whose studio was on Bleecker Street between Lafayette and the Bowery—and didn’t even realize it, although I had a copy of The Americans. Funny thing is, although I got into it backwards via Jack Kerouac and Pull My Daisy, I still very into Robert Frank whereas Jack has mosty paled. to be one of my great inspirations, period, along with Andre Kertesz, Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, Garry Winogrand, etc etc.

This is a terrible question, I know, but what’s your partial photographic pantheon? Off the top of my head I’ll rep Garry Wingogrand, Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan, Lee Friedlander, Georges Brassai, Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, Andre Kertesz, Berenice Abbott, Doris Ullman, Art Sinsabaugh etc etc.

Tanyth: Brassai was probably my first hero  then yes, Robert Frank, was and is a favorite of mine  too but I get my inspiration from painting. literature and film Bosch, Beckett and Bresson and Goya for example and have always loved social documentary more than formalist inclined work.  I love Walker Evans,  Eggleston, Koudelka, Lewis  Hine and Atget .

Brian: Bresson, really? Armond White is an excellent writer on Bresson but  confess I’m still catching up with his work. Would you keep a donkey like Belthazaar if you had the room?

Tanyth: Absolutely if I could get him up my five story walk up he could nibble from fire escape garden and watch the old men play dominoes on the corner.

Brian: So far it seems your best known for your portraiture, which is not an area I’m overly well-versed in, probably because of my distaste for the conventions of fashion and celebrity photography which too often dominate the portrait scene. I know I like Doris Ullman and  don’t like Dorothea Lange;  I’m a big Bruce Davidson fan and find most Richard Avedon tiresome. Do you see yourself as working within any particular tradition with potraits and can you tell us about it?

Tanyth: I’ve looked  at  portraiture in painting more than anything else. Munch and the Pre-Raphealites, Courbet. I believe my work  is a hybrid of social documentary and my dreams. I give myself poetic license while taking an activist stance.

Brian: I take a wide-stance on that sort of thing too.

Tanyth: [Politlely ignores the interjection.] I like to look at and think about certain people, want to be around them, produce a document that reflects the profound beauty that is suggested to me.

Brian: Monk wore some crazy hats, man! I even named my cats “Crepuscule” and “Ba-lue Bolivar Blues Ba-Lues-Are”  All those few records he made with John Coltrane are astounding  too—you can hear Coltrane both humbled and still a FORCE at the same time. What about Cindy Sherman?

Tanyth: Munch not Monk silly! I love Cindy Sherman. Her work is deeply creative, inventive, visceral and fun, I respect those  impulses to create images, she’s great.

Brian: I don’t want to give credence to what I feel is simplistic and just plain wrong criticism but I know you’ve been hit with the Diane Arbus comparison a lot. I have some empathy for Diane’s troubles and am a big fan of her ex-husband, actor Allan Arbus, the star of Robert Downey’s Greaser’s Palace (1972), but I personally don’t see it.

Tanyth: You take one picture of a person with albinism and you’re Diane Arbus I don’t get it either.

Brian: For people who haven’t seen them in person, I should tell them that some of your gallery work is physically HUGE. How do you shoot those and what are some of the technical issues in printing them? For smaller works and especially black and white, do you enjoy printing yourself?

Tanyth: At first, I print everything myself in the darkroom for reference  then work with a partner who has all the digital stuff I need to make large prints, ink jet or digital C, Photoshop etc. It’s a very time consuming process, scanning and testing but its how I get at what I want. I like making life size prints of folks I’m interested in. You get more of sense of  who they are in space.  I start with a 4×5 film neg, then crop it  to 2×5.  Not all my work is life size. I showed work in 2007 called “the Frequency” that was a series of  160  4×6 prints of  candid portraits taken in Times Square. I initially made the life size work because I wanted a life size photo of someone I had a crush on. Ha!

Brian: I know we have some photo geeks reading this so, if you’ll indulge us, any favorite film cameras on your end? I assume you’re not just using 35 mm, as much as I’d like that Leica.

Tanyth: I would love a Leica too. Sigh. For 35mm I use a Cannon with an excellent lens, a Yashica T4. 220: the Fuji 6×9 rangefinder and an ancient Mamiya RB. For 4×5 I use an old, heavy Speed Graphic with a good, new lens.

Brian: How do you feel about digital photography? I assume you work with a lot of different cameras depending on the project. For portability and cost, of course, digital is great, although I think there are a lot people calling themselves “photographers” who lack both weird talent and  historical training. Know how to edit is one of the most important things a photographer can do, isn’t it?

Tanyth: I use cheap digital cameras for note taking and would like to upgrade to replace my 35s but then I would need a better storage system, computer etc.  Can’t afford anymore debts at the moment even though it would save me money in the long run, sometimes I borrow equipment from SVA.

And yes, editing is important. If you can’t chose what’s good, then what’s the point? I think of  bodies of work like poems— each image is significant like the right word.  I usually go with what makes my blood pump a little faster and with what stays on the wall for more than a month.

Brian: You’ve lived in the largely Latino part of Williamsburg for many years, covering a time from when they were taken for granted—it was very much their neighborhood after the white ethnics left, to today, when many of the Williamsburg Latinos not working in restaurants are considered “in the way.” I know demography is a fluid thing but I’m surprised how oblivious people can be, even as they touting the so-called “diversity” of NYC. Any thoughts on this or how you’ve seen things change?

Tanyth: Believe it or not the block I grew up on the Upper West Side was mostly Latino. In fact my next door neighbor from back then, Juan Diego, recently found me on Facebook. The majority of folks in my neighborhood in Williamsburg are still Latino but it’s changing fast.

There is still plenty of diversity in the city but it might be 40 minutes from Manhattan now rather then 20. Sunset Park is a good example, but it too is an “up and coming” neighborhood. Gentrification sucks, change sucks, so much is lost, nature and culture eaten up by greed is so fucking depressing which is one of the reasons I’m drawn to photography: I can hold on, in images, at least.

Brian: There’s an interesting short film, The Case Against Lincoln Center from 1968, that shows the Latin flavor in full effect and for sure, even the Upper West Side of the 1970s was far more variegated and weird than today. Speaking of the past, I know you’re a great admirer of Luc Sante’s Low Life but what else informs your work?

Tanyth: Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights is a constant source of joy, Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar and Mouchette. Herzog. Huysman’s Against Nature. Joseph Mitchell.  Recently Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz became available and kept me totally captivated, I’m still absorbing it. Theodore Roszak’s book Voice of the Earth suggests healing one self and the earth go together and that what we do to nature effects our mental health. Rumi’s poetry always cheers me up. Emma Goldman’s autobiography Living My Life inspires me to get off my ass.

Brian: Any music old or new that’s especially inspiring? Is there a radio or anything in the darkroom with you or is silent?

Tanyth: Oh yes.  Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell are never far from my CD player but I listen to all kinds of stuff. I like a lot blues and folk music mostly.  I like this woman  from Philly, Rachelle  Ferrell and the Australian, Sugarcane  Collins I was just introduced to.

Brian: What’s next for Tanyth Berkeley and how can readers support their favorite photographer if they perhaps can’t afford gallery prices?

Tanyth: I hope to have a website up and running this year to show some different projects that don’t fit the exhibition format. On that I may make some cheap artist’s books available. I have a small artist’s book of The Frequency available at Dashwood and Printed Matter in Manhattan.

Brian: Great, great— before we split, if people are gonna go to into the city, or just be on the street doing their own work, any Tanyth-approved restaurants, diners or coffee shops? I don’t want to admit this in public but I love goat—Haitian especially—but don’t worry Balthazar is safe, he suffered enough.

Tanyth: Sal and Carmine’s Pizza on 101st and Broadway. Shopsin’s in the Essex Market when I want to be robbed and abused. Vietnamese sandwiches and fresh coconut juice in the nut in China Town. Mmmmmmm.

All photographs by Tanyth Berkeley

Thirsty Zapto is the nom-de-photography of Sands Street-native Caz Dolowicz, serving Brooklyn’s jazz and hip-hop communities since 1923.

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