Kyle Cassidy: The Unpredictable Eye, Part 2

A master of the unexpected, his work ranges from gritty and compassionate documentaries of the downtrodden to flights of whimsical fancy that smash through the bounds of reality.

Kyle Cassidy has been documenting American culture since the 1990s. He has photographed Goths, Punks, Cutters, Politicians, Metalheads, Dominatrices, Scholars and Alternative Fashion, in addition to what he called “less prosaic subjects.” In recent years his projects have extended abroad to Romania, where he captured the lives of homeless orphans living in sewers and to Egypt, where he reported on contemporary archaeological excavations. He is a contributing editor for Videomaker magazine and has even published several books on information technology. Kyle’s photography has appeared in the New York Times, Vanity Fair (DE), the Sunday Times of London, Marie Claire, Photographer’s Forum, Asleep by Dawn, Gothic Beauty and numerous other publications.

“Leaving Dakota,” his most recent project, consists of 25 episodic images taken with a Leica Digilux. It’s currently touring North America, Europe, Japan, Australia and Tasmania. Since the resolution of these cameras is under two megapixels, the images are all 4×6 inches and consequently the show is hanging in all sorts of strange places — in garages and hallways and on office doors. “I wanted to do something that would bring a gallery opening experience to anyone, anyplace, and hopefully inspire people and introduce a diverse group of people to one another in a creative situation,” he says with disarming nonchalance.  To give you greater insight into this utterly fascinating, fearless, and brilliantly creative photographer and his passion for Leica cameras, here is the second episode following part one of our interview with Kyle Cassidy in his own inimitably straightforward words.

Q: We understand why you favor classic Leica Digiluxes, and your attraction to “modest equipment,” but have you ever considered shooting with a minimalist Leica X1 or the digital flagship Leica M9? Do you think these cameras would have any operational or functional advantages for the type of work you do?

A: I think of an M9 as the equal of most any pro-gear out there — it’s hardly modest. It’s small and easier to carry and unobtrusive, but it’s sort of like calling a sports car modest because it’s not painted red. I’ve been a Leica M user for years and — I hate to sound mystical — but there’s something magical about them. There’s a feeling I get of having to live up to the camera. I love the idea of going out with one camera and three lenses in a small bag; that’s all anybody used to need. Some of the greatest photographers who ever lived never needed anything else. The X1 has a big sensor for its size and is really portable. I find that I also end up doing a lot of photos with my phone because it’s small enough that it’s always with me and there’s a real advantage to having something that small. Six or seven years ago I was walking off to lunch and turned the corner to discover a burning school bus on the side of the road with black smoke belching out of the doors and windows. There was a firefighter with an extinguisher standing with one foot on the step blasting a great cloud of CO2 inside. My camera was back home on my desk because I felt like it was too much to carry. What’s the value of a small camera at a time like that? You know, it’s a photo I’ll never have now — gone forever.

Q: We agree that many professional photographers shoot one kind of picture to make money and a different genre as personal expression. Is there any such distinction in your own work?

A: Oh sure. You do the projects you have to do so that you can do the projects you want to do. It’s probably the same for every artist. The Renaissance didn’t give us museums filled with portraits of the Medicis because that’s what artists liked to paint — it’s because that’s where the money was. Copernicus told fortunes to subsidize his astronomy; William Faulkner wrote his great epic “Flags in the Dust” on his own, but in order to get it published he had to let Max Perkins cut half of it out. So there are lots of times, even when you’re doing your own stuff, that someone else gets input into it. Along the way you learn that you don’t have a portfolio. You have multiple portfolios and you try to always do your best thinking which portfolio it’s going into — you know, “How is this going to help my architecture portfolio?” or “How can I make this the best photo in my corporate headshot portfolio?” And sometimes you, as a photographer, want to fade into the background and not put a big footprint on an image because you’re facilitating someone else and your job is to make their vision solid. That kind of thinking keeps you from resenting the things that are keeping you away from doing what you want to be doing – understanding and appreciating all the different sorts of work you do.

Q: You made an intriguing statement that there is a “direct line” between your shooting your first roll of film at age 13 with your grandfather’s camera and where you are now. Can you elaborate on this and tell us something more about your evolution as a photographer?

A: I was always drawn to telling stories because the world seemed a little mundane. I’d see a forest landscape and think to myself, “This needs flying saucers.” We’re probably all like that as kids, but I never grew out of it. I always tell people that the technical side is the easy part — anybody can learn that. The hard part is figuring out what to photograph. The ideas are the things that make your photography unique. Anybody can take a sharp photo, but not everybody can figure out when it needs flying saucers.

Q: You made it very clear that working with Mary Ellen Mark was a big influence on you and that one of the things she provided was candid criticism of your work. Can you tell us something about how she influenced you in other ways?

A: There are lots of things that I learned from being around Mary Ellen Mark. One was that “no” just means you haven’t asked the right person and that being able to talk to people is one of the most important skills a photographer can have; not just in the, “May I make a photograph of you?” sense, but the, “Hey! Can I use the roof of your building?” sort of way too. I learned that almost everybody has a story that they want to tell, that people want to be asked about things and that people mostly do want to be photographed, though sometimes you have to ask in the right way. I learned that going into some big documentary project is always easier if you have a guide on the inside that can introduce you to people. I learned to respect your subjects, be worthy of the trust that they put in you and treat everyone fairly and present everyone honestly, regardless of whether or not you agree with them. I also learned to be relentless, but with a smile.

Q: We love your expression “sinister whimsy” in describing some of your work that transcends “straight documentary.” What is it that motivates you to create such things as “Armed America” depicting gun owners, and portraits of people in their rocking chairs?

A: While I’m wildly interested in my own stories, I’m also really interested in other people’s stories too. Certainly this was the case with “Armed America,” the book I did about gun owners. The subject was, to some extent, commonplace to half of America and completely alien to the other half. While doing that I got to go into so many people’s houses and just talk to people. It also really got me to think about what it means to be an American — that you live in a splintered land where people don’t necessarily understand one another from one hundred miles to the next. I liked the idea of meeting people I’d probably never meet otherwise. As for the other subject, I have a rocking chair in my living room and it has a long and interesting family story, so I thought, “I bet every one of these chairs has an interesting story” and I found out that, pretty much, they do. It seemed to be a parallel to the book about gun owners — to simply pick a thing that people who may have almost nothing in common, have in common, and then ask them about it.

Q: Your statement about the “build quality and sheer mechanical joy of the Leica” and comparing your introduction to it to that of Dorothy stepping out of black-and-white Kansas into the Technicolor land of Oz, is eloquent. Can you tell us something about your experiences with Leica cameras and lenses other than the Digiulxes? Do you still shoot with a Leica M, for example?

A: Apart from my early Digiluxes, I have a Leica M3, an M6 and an R8. The M6 is what I’ve always considered “my camera.” It’s the thing I’ve bonded with; it’s the one I’d grab in a fire. It’s been through experiences with me and to me it’s unique in all the world. To drive that point home, I took a metal file to it, with some great vigor, while giving a lecture at the New York Leica Users Group at the International Center for Photography, horrifying a room full of Leica owners. The point being that file marks on your camera and dents in your camera and chipped paint on your camera are the things that make it your camera and not someone else’s. I wouldn’t want a camera I couldn’t immediately identify in a pile. I don’t have a digital M and in a world where image turnaround for working photographers is measured typically in minutes, or at most hours, shooting film in many instances puts you at a great disadvantage. Trading something elegant for something practical makes professional sense, but it leaves you with a bit of an emotional vacancy. A lot of times I’ll bring my M6 along even if I’m pretty sure I won’t use it because it feels like having a friend.

Q: The insight that photography can never be totally honest because it is based on choices that structure the reality it depicts, is profound. What do you think a documentary photographer has to do to take on the mantle of truth and to be moral, insofar as that is humanly possible? Does the photographer of “worlds that don’t exist” have any moral responsibilities in regard to the content or thrust of his/her work?

A: Artists have fanciful leeway that journalists don’t; and we want them to. We want the acne Photoshopped out of our wedding photos. We want our movie action heroes to race cars at insane speeds and leap from bridges and beat up villains. That’s what fantasy is and it’s a huge part of human existence. A few years ago I got to photograph one of the original stone tablets that tell the story of Gilgamesh and it was very moving to be there, looking at this thing and realizing that as long as we’ve been alive, we’ve been making things up and telling tales to excite and entertain.  But when writers or photographers represent themselves as journalists, they’re held to a completely different standard – they’re there to record things, not make them up and it’s a powerful responsibility. Your highest duty is to an accurate representation — the most accurate one you’re capable of and also in owning up to the limitations of your abilities. We make doctors take an oath before they start practicing and I really think that journalists should too.

Q: How do you see your photography, both the documentary and fanciful genres, evolving going forward? Will Leica cameras and lenses play any part in that creative evolution?

A: Leica has been a big part of my artistic evolution up to this point and M cameras have long been one of the most important elements in documentary photographers’ arsenals. I really look forward to our collision on this side of the digital divide.

-Leica Internet Team

You can find out more about “Leaving Dakota,” see the tour schedule or volunteer to host it yourself by going to www.kylecassidy.com.