John Jonas Gruen
How did you get into photography? Which came first, photography or writing?
Actually, writing came first. I came out of the University of Iowa, and I wanted to become an actor. I thought I had tremendous talent in that direction, but I was wrong. So, I switched to writing. The University of Iowa had a writer’s workshop that I was in for a couple of years. Then I met the woman that I love. She was a girl born on the farm in Iowa, who turned out to be unthinkably beautiful, incredibly smart and brilliant. I brought my bride to New York City when I was 20, Jane was somewhat older. I got a job in a bookstore, “Brentanos”, and I began selling books. I was very anxious to have a job that gave me a certain amount of power, celebrity, and notoriety. Being born and raised in Europe, I had always heard that in America you could do anything, be anyone, and have great success if you wanted it. With that in mind, I began meeting an awful a lot of people. I achieved a great piece of luck and fortune with landing a job at the Herald Tribune. Some thought that I had a lot of nerve coming in there and not being trained as a journalist. I mastered the English language and then became an art critic and a music critic. I was the first critic to do both. I did that from 1960 until the tribune folded, alas, in 1967. Throughout those 6 years, I developed an absolute passion for photography.
Before I got to the Tribune, I had a job at a photo agency called “Rapho Guillumette”. They handled Brassaï, british artists like Bill Brandt, etc. They handled all manners of photographers. Because I spoke French, I could communicate with Brassaï and the lot of them. They were not at all famous when I worked there; they were just photographers.
What kind of photography were they doing for the agency?
They were doing photo-essays for Life magazine, Look, and the picture magazines in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. They were just taking all of these great pictures that people were constantly looking at all of the time. Within in the agency, I handled these pictures on a daily basis. We had prints in those days, and I held them!
What was your job at the agency?
I was an agent at the agency. I’d sell pictures to various publications. I developed this passion for photography itself: to take pictures and to stop time, to live in the moment, and to have eternity in your hands. This is what photography is, holding eternity in your hands, and then it’s there forever. I thought that whole notion of photography – its mystery, the fact that it stays, the fact that it captures that moment, and the fact that it is no longer the same the next minute – was fascinating. I loved photographing people, because nothing is more fascinating than people. So, I developed an interest in portraiture and made it one of my things. When I became a critic for the newspaper, Jane and I bought a house in Water Mill and made friends who were artists such as Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns (who were not yet at all famous). So we developed this life, and I began photographing my friends in our house at Water Mill on the beach called Flying Point Beach, which also happens to be the name of my current show at the Art Amalgamated Gallery. We were both attractive and people adopted us. She became Jane Wilson and I became John Gruen and we got to be well known as the couple of the 60’s and 70’s, into the 80’s, and then believe it or not we got old! I had absolutely no idea this would happen. And that’s where we are, it’s the most extraordinary thing. Ask me another question.
Do you still take photographs?
Yes I am still photographing, absolutely. I have an assistant, but of course when you get old things happen to you. I developed glaucoma. I can still see, I mean I can’t see completely, the focus is not there, and things are in a fog. I’m sad that I am losing it. It hinders me of course because I can’t read, for example. I can’t read The Times. After the Tribune, I immediately got hired by The New York Times because I was everywhere. I worked for The Times for 20 years writing for them while also writing for Vogue. I write less and less now because I would rather speak, as you see I can, and second, I prefer interviews like this. Writing is so hard; photography is a little bit easier. Though now I am a bit impaired visually, so prose is a bit of a problem in terms of ease.
So what do you think of photography now?
There is so much going on, there is so much of it, and so much of it is accepted. Especially the phenomenon of digital photography and all of these new cameras – it’s incredible. I had my Leica and then I had my Nikon. With photography, you had your contact prints and everything was still a mystery, you didn’t know what you had or whether a shot would come out, and you were always on tenture hooks. You were lucky if it all came out so you could choose. Today everything is there for you, you already know what you’ve taken. Not only that, but you can crop it the way you wish, it’s insane. It’s a kind of facility and ease that almost does away with the great art of it. Perhaps I’m speaking ill of the great advancement of photography because it’s connected to computers. Everybody takes photographs and now they’re taken with cell phones, it’s insane. So photography has become the “every man” of society, it is there for everyone to enjoy, to ruin, and to make an art of it. So again, it all boils down to who is taking the picture. It always comes down to that.
What do you think the art to portraiture is?
I happen to love the movies and am a great believer in the close-up. The fact is that people don’t respond to portraiture today as they might have before. I have taken so many portraits; I have also found that people don’t buy portraits. I will never become rich as a photographer selling portraits. I was incredibly lucky in having met a man at the Whitney who was a curator, who fell in love with my pictures of the artists. That person, the curator, became the head of the Whitney. His name is Adam Weinberg, who I photographed many times, and he is an adorable man – absolutely. He said, “you photograph me more than my mother!” He loved my pictures and we had an arrangement to take portraits of artists in the Whitney collection. Not only that, but they gave me a show in 2010. It was fabulous and it’s ongoing so I can still continue working on it.
That is amazing. Congratulations. Do you think that was your biggest break?
Absolutely, no question. It was my biggest break and it allowed me to meet all of these people, these wonderful artists, both the new ones and the old ones.
Who would you say is the most influential person in your career?
In photography, I would say Brassaï. He was a great influence in my life and he was a wonderful friend as well. He advised me, “don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid to make your subjects feel wonderful and tell them they are beautiful even if they are ugly as sin. Tell them they’re beautiful.”
So, when you do a portrait what do you go for?
I go for the natural. I don’t fuss with them at all because it’s natural and it’s who they are when I photograph them. I do not have a studio and I do not set up lights. I turn to daylight mostly and I photograph them as they are. I feel happy doing that but I will say this for Avedon, we were friendly and I admired him enormously, even though he was a huge egomaniac. The thing about Avedon is that some of his pictures are very cruel and so you’re a little scared of that.
If you were to give any advice to an emerging photographer, what would it be?
First of all, photograph everything. Don’t limit yourself because you don’t know yet what you want to photograph for good, as in a type of subject matter that is all your own. Also, bear in mind that everything has been photographed. There isn’t anything that you might want as a photographer that hasn’t already been done. However, no photographer will ever take the same picture twice, even if it’s the same subject, or even if it looks the same. There is always going to be something that’s not going to be similar to the next. You’re always going to be your own individual photographer. If you happen to have talent, I cannot say how it happens because that’s mysterious, look at that and cherish that. At first you might not even like it. You might say “did I really take that?”, study it, and then see if you can replicate it somehow, but then forget about it, or something will come back. Photography for a young person is a big open world and they should embrace it without too many questions. Just do it and do it every day if you can. If possible, do your own printing. The image, the mystery, the beauty, and the miracle of the image is what you should aim for. Adore it, make your own, and give to the world. Don’t be shy, give to the world, just give it! Don’t retain it.
When Brassaï said to you “don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid”, what do you think he meant by that?
He meant don’t be afraid to push yourself. For example, if you are in front of a subject doing a specific thing, he said to do it again, even if it bothers a subject. I mean, don’t go crazy and make a subject sit for three hours because some people do, like Diane Arbus. What he said was “try to find out who that person is photographically”, because the photograph at first only gives you the surface, you don’t immediately see the inner person. You have to find that inner person, see if it comes out, and you will see in the image if it does or not.
Did you take a long time photographing your subjects?
Yes, but I don’t do it anymore. I now take one roll, 36 exposures. By the way, I still use the Nikon and film. I don’t take a very long time anymore. I think that if I can’t get it in 36 shots then I might as well fold my tent.
What does your assistant Sam do for you?
He is my eyes.
So, do you prefer photographing in the morning? What works best for you?
Yes, these days mornings are good. I can see better somehow in the morning.
Do you still hand-hold your camera?
Yes, definitely. I still hand-hold it.
So, what’s next?
The New York Historical Society is interested in my work. Horse and Buggy at Central Park is on its way out I believe, because of the way that they mistreat their horses, it becomes historical. As well as a series about smokers in front of buildings.
Do you consider yourself a documentary photographer?
Yes, more so because a portrait is documented.