John Michael Swartz is a man of many talents. He plays and records and studies music, takes haunting photographs, and can probably talk circles around you about many an obscure thing. Having engineered several albums and EPs, as well as playing cello and keyboard in different arrangements, John has honed his technical skills while experimenting and contributing to the creative visions of many different artists. He is one of those rare people that can remain in the background and shine on stage. And he sure knows how to take a photo! Not only that, but he's always working on some new project, whether it's writing, making quirky video clips, or sneakily recording his friends with a microphone. It was my pleasure to speak with the uber-articulate John, whom I first met at Sarah Lawrence College, about photography, music, his most recent tour, and his life as an artist.
Quick LookNo-Alternative: Let's talk first about your photography. When and how did you get into this? What are some of your recurrent themes, styles, and subjects?
Birthday: February 2, 1984
Living in: Brooklyn, New York
Originally from: San Diego, California
John Michael Swartz: I've been interested in photography for a very long time, since I was using my mom's Minolta point-and-shoot when I was 8 or 9, maybe even younger, since I have distinct, yet very old memories of trying to arrange the strangest awful pictures of foliage --- myriads of them taken from the San Diego Zoo tour bus --- into photo albums. It took me awhile to develop any sense of photography as anything more than "something to do" or as a purely mechanical fascination. Obviously, though, there's something inherently magical and alluring about it, otherwise I wouldn't have kept with it. Nobody would have.
So between the time of trying to take pictures of piles of building blocks falling over, for example, and what I'm doing now, I went to college and studied with Joel Sternfeld. He was among the best teachers of anything I've ever had, a real inspiration. I basically learned about color and about the kind of photography that gets put into art museums, published in monographs, sold in editions. "Fine Art" photography. Fascinating stuff. It broke open my head, so to speak, and vastly increased the number of plausible reasons why and ways in which I would bother to make photographs. Actually, I just recently learned about a respected photographer who made a name for himself in the ’70s by photographing Hawaiian jungles at night with a flash...
Stylistically, I tend to favor serene, static compositions. I prefer a certain cool, sometimes even clinical detachment from my subjects. The Düsseldorf School really fascinates me: I like all the different approaches to the idea of "objectivity" through photography. I'm not a natural when it comes to lyricism, but I'm working on it.
Do you ever see a picture before you snap one? How many are set up and how many are happenstance? And do you feel like you observe the world now as if your eye was always behind a lens?
One thing that has become clear to me in the past couple of months is that I have internalized many of the abstract drawings/diagrams that I make in my journals. They're generalizations of compositions, metaphysical maps, what- ever. Anyway, I'll snap pictures --- sometimes very spontaneously --- that I'll later realize I have a blueprint for it squirreled away somewhere.
I think it is very important to remember that we can only see in the world what we know, which is why I take such pains to make sure that whatever I'm immersing myself in at the moment is ethical or good or whatever. You know how you can listen to a record over and over, and it might be a rather depressing record, then you start seeing the world through that lens? It's awful! I can't listen to too much Nirvana or Radiohead for that reason, as good as the music is. So I listen to music very cautiously and critically. I look at other people's pictures very cautiously and critically, and submit my own to the same scrutiny.
I think the best way to describe how most of my photos happen is that I get myself into a situation and, when everybody's comfortable, out comes the camera. Also, this is true even when it's just me sitting out in the middle of a field somewhere. Basically, I'm not in a studio, and I usually feel like a prowler. Also, quite a bit of my older work is constructed out of a combination of photographs and drawings, and I'm set to explore that area again. For the moment, though, I'm concerned with the physical act of taking a photograph, determining what about it is ethical. It's comparable to practicing scales or etudes on a musical instrument.
Do you consider photography (yours or anyone else's) to be art? Is there any criteria for what type of photos (for example: digital vs. film) should be considered art, in your opinion? And who are some of your favorite photographers?
Oddly, for as many ideas I've held forth about what art is, I can't say that I've really ever entertained any or many ideas about what it isn't. Nowadays, I use the word "art" either to refer to the peculiar institutions which buy and sell things like photographs, or to indicate a certain kind of mindfulness of action and experience. I think that if one is paying any attention, the fact that that there are many more useful things to talk about apart from whether or not something is "art" will become excruciatingly clear.
I never had any favorite photographers until I studied with Sternfeld. And I don't know if it's because I have such an intimate knowledge of his photos, but they really are my favorite. Very humane and intelligent.
I know you have a thing for older film cameras --- and you boast quite a collection! Why is this, and do you have any favorites?
I have very pragmatic reasons for using film, and one of them is that you can purchase the best optics in the world for a fraction of the price of a new digital camera of comparable quality. I also just like film. I grew up with it, studied with it, and I can be kind of disorganized, so I like how it's not as easy to misplace or lose as digital files are. I mean, I end up scanning my film in order to print it, but I know that when my computer crashes or whatever, I'll still have all the negatives collecting dust somewhere in my underwear drawer.
I also like that there are all these different kinds of cameras that, by their very physicality, change the way that you take pictures. Right now I really dig my Mamiya 6 because it gives wonderfully large negatives, I can carry it in a small bag, and it's very easy to use while drunk.
Can I ask why exactly you decided to create your Tumblr and publicly share some of your photos? Did you have any specific goals in mind?
Let's just say that I don't use Facebook anymore. It's a slippery slope, because everybody who creates these new sites know that social media is hot right now, they can make money from it somehow, so a site like Tumblr isn't always going to be the relatively muted, anti-social haven that it is now.
Practically speaking, I really wanted a way to put up my work and selectively tell people to look at specific things that I had been working on. I also like to be able to study my own photos and to jot down notes or put up other people's pictures to look at anywhere I go. I remember wandering around the painter's studios in college, and being fascinated by the traces of their creative process: cans of turpentine and oil and paints everywhere, and just about every possible thing tacked to the walls to look at. Every once in a while, there'd be a canvas or so worth looking at, too! My Tumblr works the same way.
You are a cellist, keyboardist, and recording engineer. What are some of the musical and recording projects you are currently working on, or have been recently involved with?
I just finished up with Anna Morsett's (Yet Cut Breath) album, Hinges, which is great. It's the result of a long, sometimes tumultuous creative process, and I think it was well worth it. Immediately following that, I tracked Jake Miller's new EP for his band The Kissing Club up at Crum Creek (in Rockland County, NY). I really love that place. So much in fact I'm going to be putting an analog recording setup up there pretty much permanently.
Let's see...I'm also mixing a live recording from 1999 of the New York Art Quartet for my friend Alan Roth's documentary on them. He has a great film out about free jazz called Inside Out In the Open. I've been touring off and on with Brent Green, playing cello for his film Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then. We were just in Memphis, TN. Yes, we went to Graceland. Yes, it was weird. We're going to Australia and Europe next! I'm super excited.
You've performed in a myriad of arrangements and collaborations --- some multimedia --- and in many different settings. You've also done improvisational music. How do you feel about improvised music (either performing solo or with a group) vs. playing more traditional songs? Have you had a particularly memorable improv experience?
It's been too long since I've done the kind of free improvisation I learned at Sarah Lawrence with John Yannelli. It's actually kind of like my romantic life.... I have had the opportunity to play with some really great improvisers over the past few years, but it's like I didn't know how great it was or how badly I'd miss it when it wasn't around anymore. I certainly don't resent all of the other kinds of music I've done, it's just a totally different focus and energy.
At least 50% of my practice time is spent improvising. And actually, I've also done quite a bit of outrageous experimental composing, so I suppose that I'm going through a very inward solo phase. That, and I'm also just rather bad at organizing other people --- I fear that I'm actually an overbearing asshole if I'm put in charge of anything creative. But perhaps I've mellowed out in my old age. I don't have any particularly memorable improv experiences; the way I play, it's a bit like asking if I have taken a particularly memorable breath. It's not out of the question, but it's extraordinarily rare. I guess that gives me something to look forward to!
Recently, you've married your musical side with your photography in that you've taken pictures while on tour, which has introduced you to new landscapes and people. Can you talk about these recent touring adventures, and how they've inspired your photos?
Touring is interesting. I think everybody does it differently, especially depending on what kind of money is involved. In any case, it has been very fascinating to see so many parts of the country that I hadn't ever encountered before. But then, I think I've pretty much exhausted the visual landscape of the roadside this end of the Mississippi. I recently realized how incredibly homogeneous rest areas and the bits of towns right off of highways are. I think the next step would be to take a road trip of my own, on my own, so that I can stop and explore at my own pace, get myself chased out of town by angry lynch mobs and such.
I think taking pictures of people you spend days with in a car or in a hotel is deceptively reassuring. It's almost too easy after a while! Everybody's so comfortable. But I don't complain. Most of what I do with photography at the moment is exploratory, and actually helps me get a grip on my personal life, insofar as the activity encourages me to try doing things a little differently each time. This is especially true when it comes to relating to people.
Do you feel as though you are part of any artistic community? And if not, do you wish you were?
I don't. And I do, but I don't think I actually know what that could possibly mean. But who, besides the traumatized, really wants to be alone? I have the suspicion that "artistic communities" are really manufactured ex post facto for PR purposes, and that everything else is really just a fabulous party.
In 2006, you engineered The Stevedores album, Tamuawok., which has since gained a following. Can you talk a little about the ups and downs of recording this dynamic record?
Just like how my best photos of people come from simply spending a lot of time with them, so too are my best musical collaborations. Tamuawok. was the same. It's the truest portrait I could have made of anything at the time. I love that record, and I love everybody that made it happen. I think the hardest part about making it was trying to find my voice in the creative process: being friends with everybody, having an enormous stake in the final outcome of a lot of the songs, but not actually being in the band. It's sort of a masochistic, melancholic position to be in, especially at that age (22), but it's really the only way I know how to make a truly good record.
A truly good record it is! Thank you, my fellow Aquarian.
Why thank you, Miss Dupcak. I hope your Saturn return is treating you well!
(all photos by John Swartz except for the Yet Cut Breath photo /Tamuawok. cover art by Spencer Bell)