Igor Posner and Mary Di Lucia – Photographer & Writer

– Hello and welcome to
the i3 Lecture Series, hosted by the Masters in
Digital Photography program at the School of Visual Arts. We are thrilled to have
photographer Igor Posner and poet Mary di Lucia as
tonight’s guest speakers. Originally from St. Petersburg, Igor moved to California in the early 90s. He studied molecular biology at UCLA where he also took an
interest in photography. By 2006 he had embarked
on a full time career as a photographer. Returning to his hometown
of St. Petersburg, Leningrad back when you… – Leningrad. – You were born to it, right?
– Yes. – He began work on Past Perfect Continuous which was published by
Red Hook Editions in 2017. Mary di Lucia holds a doctorate in comparative literature
from Harvard University and a Master of Fine
Arts in poetry from NYU. She has won awards as a writer,
a poet, and an educator. Currently, Mary serves as faculty in the Language and Thinking
Institute at Bard College and is teaching Hamlet at
Fishkill Correction Institute through the Bard prison initiative. There’s a long and distinguished tradition of collaborations between
writers and photographers but seldom do they result
in the twin publication of companion books as was the case with
Past Perfect Continuous and accompaniments. So, please help we welcome Igor Posner and Mary di Lucia to our lecture series. (clapping) – So, I’d like to just quickly start for those who don’t know me just by introducing myself. I was born in the former Soviet Union. Moved to California in the very early 90s right after the collapse of Soviet Union. I moved to California and
I studied something else other than photography. I studied the molecular biology, developmental biology in order to become a doctor. And, so, but it never felt… It never felt quite right to me. But, I knew I was doing
maybe a practical thing for an immigrant who just, you know… And, ah, just want to mention how
photography came into my life. I don’t have a very romantic story from my childhood where I would just stumble upon
my grandfather’s old camera. There’s nothing that happened. None of the members of
my family are artists. But, when I was studying at the university I was given a birthday gift and that gift was a point
and shoot digital camera. So, even though I grew
up in the age of film my journey with photography started actually with a
digital point and shoot camera. And once I had this camera in my hand I think somehow things
really, really changed. I became totally infatuated with what it could do and the freedom it gives me. Freedom, first of all not
go from point A to point B but rather to explore other things. Yah, so that was the beginning. And, ah… In terms of my development, so even though, okay so I was born in
Russian in Soviet Union But obviously I didn’t have any formal photography education there so I don’t fall in that lineage of Russian Soviet school. But my influences are primarily
the New York photo league. That has always been my inspiration. And I still come back to it and learn. So, that was, yeah, so that was the beginning of my journey. And now, tonight I’d like
to show you two projections. One is of my very, very early work and I think it’s important for me, at least I’m very curious
to see the development of any artist. So, and, I think it would be very educational for everyone
to see the early work. It’s a short projection and then we’re going to
move to another projection which is just a little bit longer which is about my work in Russia and is a topic of today’s evening, so that’s our plan, okay? So, let’s begin with the visual part. And I think it’s important to first also stimulate each other visually. Maybe assault visually. Any way you want to put it. So, let’s see. Let’s look at the images. (experimental violin music) (experimental violin music) (experimental violin music) (dramatic experimental music) So, just to give you just
a little bit of context this work was done primary
in brothels in Tijuana in Mexico and transitional hotels in downtown Los Angeles. So, very difficult areas but yeah, that was sort
of the beginning, okay? And then, let’s look
at the work from Russia which is the topic of today’s gathering. (scraping sound) (experimental soundscape music) (uneasy music) (dramatic music) (dramatic music) (dramatic classical music) (music cuts to silence) (clapping) Okay, so, we, um, Mary and I really want to be
very generous and educational so as I speak if you have any questions feel free to interrupt me. I’m more than happy to
answer any sort of questions. Yes, hi. Okay, the question is about the cameras. What kind of camera I use. Yes, it’s always difficult to answer. I use range finders for 35 millimeter and toy cameras for medium format. Yeah, it’s all, I use film cameras. But the cameras doesn’t really matter. It’s just, it’s very, you know, it’s very individual. And, you know, there’s no one camera that is right for you or not. That’s my choice. Okay, thank you. So, um… So, just a few words about this project. As I’ve mentioned, I moved to California in the very early 90s and I lived there for 14 years and I’d never gone back to Russia up until in 2006, I decided to
take up photography full time and then at that moment it felt like okay maybe
it’s the right time for me to come back. There was no ambition to have a book or to work on a book. There was just a pure
hunger to take photos. As I mentioned, I was totally infatuated with photography and it seemed like after wandering for
several years in California and in Mexico, it felt like for me the
right place to go to to take photos. And, so, I moved to my
hometown, St. Petersburg. I lived there for four years or just to be precise it
took four just to finish, just shooting. My approach was to maybe shoot for, to photograph for three or four months and then go back home, develop and spend some time in select, spend some time in darkroom and then go again. And then I think my last
trip lasted almost a year. I had what’s it called? A two way ticket but I
just missed my flight and I stayed for almost a year. So, that’s… That’s where it started. Now, moving to the book and how the idea of a book was conceived. After some time it felt like okay it’s an honest body of work. That’s how I felt like and I felt like I have, ah, maybe I have something to say. And, um… And I started editing and I failed miserably. I really didn’t know how to edit the work it was just a new, entirely new dynamic for me. So, um… So, yeah, and it took me several years to almost suffer with this to develop some skills as an editor and as a visual writer almost. And um… So, about this work again even thought there is a obviously there’s a
personal story behind it, I hae a history with the place but that personal story is secondary. I think that for me,
to have personal story I think it’s a good starting part for yourself as an artist. So, that’s where you sort of begin. Then you have to open to a journey kind of a journey itself It’s very important. You start usually, with me, I start with one idea or one concept and then I end up with entirely
sort of different ending or conclusion. But, that’s just my… That’s just how I am I think. But, the journey’s very important and then what else is very important in my opinion is that you need to take some time to reflect upon your work upon what happened to you after a very intense period of shooting. Or at least that’s how it is with me. I think that the shooting is a very, very, very physically
enduring thing for me. And then I, ah, there’s a period of complete dormancy. I exhausted so. But at the same time within those periods, I try to reflect. That separation gives me maybe more of an objective angle for the story for something I want to convey to people. And then, also, that separation of time also I think it gives you another important quality is that you’re how do I put it? Anyway, my point is
that you need some time. Like with wine, you need to
give it some time to ferment. That’s essentially the point. So that’s how the idea of
the book was conceived. Let me mention… Yes, hi. Oh, the question was
about the shooting process whether I was looking a
certain type of photographs or just walking the streets. Whether it’s a random process or more of a kind of a focused and
brain processed, etc. It’s always a dilemma I think that what you want ideally is to always to sort of, to always be open to
just any possibilities. So, my approach is always to be… Or at least my reminder to myself is to be opportunistic all the time. Because the problems often arise, okay, I think I need that shot, the particular shot and it makes me blind to everything else to what’s going on with me. So I start chasing that shot and in the end it’s a disappointment and a waste of time. So, just to answer your question, I think… Yeah, in a sense I think it’s both. Certainly there were certain
places I was interested in. Well, St. Petersburg is a
very, very beautiful town and it’s very polished especially now, Putin’s Russia is very polished. But there is a lot behind. There’s a lot of history and literature and some social aspects. So, okay, I’ll stop here. Yeah? (cross talk) – [Audience Member] As your media. Why that given the time frame it was shot? – Well, during the
course of my development I think I’ve mentioned in
the very, very beginning even though I grew up in a film era I started my photography with digital. But during my development
as I came across film it felt like the right language for this particular work. I make… I think it’s pointless to
argue film versus digital and your preferences. But what’s important is the choice, the choice of express… I mean film is a certain language and digital is a certain language so, that’s… Excuse me, that’s where I feel that this is the right choice to express. All right? Okay, so where were we? Yeah, let me just, let me talk a little
bit about three things: my approach to work, selection and darkroom work. So, the first one is my approach. And again, I just want to mention there is not right or wrong approach as you meet many other photographers. Everyone has their own philosophy and I respect that. There’s not need to argue over it. Whatever works for you. So, for me, it is important, I think, the shooting itself. This is the question… Sometimes I teach workshops. And the question that is often asked is well how do you shoot? Do you shoot with your heart? Do you shoot with your brain? You know, do you shoot with your soul? None of the above. I shoot with my stomach. Really, you have to be hungry, It’s a very primitive feeling but this is the only way I know. Otherwise, yeah, it just doesn’t work for me. So, that’s that. And then, in terms of shooting itself. I always advocate just to be loose, just to be loose with your wrist just to be loose. The beauty of photography is that, um, by making a mistake… Mistake is very important
in photography I think. Actually, some of you
might know Peter Galassi, right, the former curator of MOMA. I think I was listening to his lecture and he mentioned that
the very unique feature of photography is that photographers always make mistakes. You can make mistake in
exposure and many other things and then you look through your negatives and you have an eureka moment. Oh, my camera can do that! So, that, I think it’s
very, it’s fantastic. It’s very important to be… And then so, this, ah… It’s important to be
kind of open to mistakes. So, that’s kind of a process. Again, this blurriness, okay, in photos, etc., right? So, this is not, I mean, this
is not my primary intention. There are photos that
are perfectly in focus. But, I also, you know, I try to be loose. And then when you look at the negatives there’s another level of discovery. You know, you could
discover something, so… What else? And then so, let’s… Yeah, let’s look a little
bit about selection, I think. And I want to start with for me, I mean, there are always images that are personal. But in terms of selection I think it’s important to recognize photos which carry some, maybe universal existential quality. That’s what I’m always looking for. So it’s less about me but more about maybe for me, um, recognizing or finding new ways to say very old universal things. So, that’s, you know,
that’s what I look for when selecting images. Plus, you know, there’s certainly, I think an image should carry
some mystique, some mystery. It’s always interesting that’s where you come back to it. So, because it’s, ah… You know, it could be a fertile ground for your imagination. It’s an important quality for me. I also like cinematic quality. I’m kind of a junkie for cinematic. It’s just beautiful. And, some photos they just have an element of contemplation. Which is kind of a pose and that’s also important. And, so, and then darkroom is very important part of my workflow. At least for this particular work because the other projects
that I’m working on it’s also film but it’s in color and I don’t use darkroom as much for it. So, anyway, darkroom is very important to bring certain potential
within the negative that is already there. So, for me, it’s important and then it is less about certain style but more about maybe substance. And I think darkroom allows or even digital editing,
doesn’t matter really, to bring this to the surface. And also darkroom has an element of surprise, a mistake. You always make mistake. You know, it’s so difficult
to make a perfect print. So, but that’s part of the workflow. Yeah? Okay. So, let’s move on. And, yeah, so construction
of photographic narrative. Yeah, so this is… Anyway, very… It’s a subject that’s lately, I mean I take huge interest in it. And, as I said, when I first
started editing this work I failed miserably. Horrible experience. But also learning, fantastic. And then, so I developed
that skill over time. And I think as I was
editing this book, I…. I was constantly making notes to myself and they’re more like reminders. So you, ah… What happens is you have
maybe a couple of days very productive. So, you have these creative juices flowing and you want them to go on. But then you hit a writer’s
block and it’s, ah! So, what do you do next? And I always go back to this very, very, very basic reminders. So, I’m going to read some of them to you just to share. I mean there’s nothing … There’s nothing very personal but it’s just a few reminders that helped me to work on the constructing of a narrative. Here, so, mmm…. A photographic narrative essentially is a set of
variations on a theme. Okay? And the basic idea for me is to shape a rhythm from the images. Not necessarily from my brain but from the photos themselves. And the reasons are often, at least for me, they should be intuitive rather than analytical. Okay? And then, it’s very essential that when you, when you look through the book, when you browse the book that a viewer becomes a participant and almost a protagonist of what I’m showing because, um…. The way you construct narrative you should leave some space vacant for the viewer. In other words, you, I think when you’re ambiguous it’s a virtue because it leaves some
space for imagination. And it invites a viewer to participate, okay? So, at one point the narrative was done and again, a book, I was thinking about how much text I should give, should be in a book, because I always prefer
not to have any subtitles other than, well, maybe
a location and a year. But I prefer not to be
descriptive about the photos. And, um, I had a certain idea that instead of having a text to accompany my book which is kind of philosophical text or explains the nature of work. Instead of all that, to have a fictional story that doesn’t necessary speak directly of the images but it sort of goes in
parallel with the story and, you know, there was a period of when I was considering many different writers
and then I thought of Mary because she, actually she sent me a few
pieces that I really like and they left a mark on me. I thought they were funny and imaginative. Of course I had doubts in the sense of does she
have an understanding of photography or where I’m coming from but then I thought it’s kind of irrelevant really. And in the end, so I
approached Mary with this insane idea, and Mary? – Thanks, Igor. And as Igor is speaking, and talking about being a witness or making a work of art that someone else can enter into, I feel like in a way I’m
a witness maybe to you for what that experience can be. You know, I have some notes here. I have let’s see. Igor wanted me to talk about
my early work in childhood. I wrote down… I’ll give you the quick version. Raised by wolves, bookstores, bicycles, in search of something, boys, love, accidentally got a PhD. I was good at school And I took a train trip to St. Petersburg in 1991 during a first marriage,
didn’t really work out. But… In other words I’m a writer. I’ve had nine lives. Right now in fact, I’m a New
York city teaching fellow in the Bronx teaching eighth grade
English special education. It’s amazing. And this is what Igor’s
work is also saying and his ethos, his ars poetica, remain open as an artist. I’ve written poems, I’ve written stories. I don’t have and didn’t have a book. I sent Igor some essays
and poems I had written so when he approached me to work on this project, I was too polite to say no but I really had no idea what he wanted or whether I would respond or, yeah, whether I could do it. Why me? And he would never tell me. And that is part of, I think, that space that one kind of genre can give another. Igor never told me, his photographs never told me anything. So, a container was created that another being could enter and mysteriously I did enter. I got this folder. There’s an image here of three boys that you might recall. And I remember I was sitting at my desk and a student came to talk to me and she was like, “Wow!” You know the image was up on the screen. So, these things speak to you. So for about three months I tried to write something
that I didn’t know what it would be. But I looked. I looked at those images
over and over again. And I entered that story at many points. And I couldn’t write anything. And I tried to grill Igor. What’s going on in this picture? How did you do this? Nothing. I knew a little bit about his journey to St. Petersburg and his journey as a photographer. It ended up that I took a plane. I have a little child. I took a place to Paris where I had kind of of gone to when I was 21 to find myself. And I hadn’t been back there in 25 years. That’s how old I am. Because I wanted to do what Igor did. I wanted to go back somewhere so that was the past and
the present at the same time ’cause I dreamed about it and I thought maybe if I go there
and do this crazy thing I’ll break my, I dunno,
photographer’s block. And I actually brought a camera with me. And what happened was I was walking around and trying to, the old place
where I used to live in Paris. I couldn’t, I had my notebook,
didn’t write anything. And I saw this guy and he
was taking a photograph of all these flowers, this really old guy. And I went and I took a photograph of him and as I’m taking the
photograph he looked at me almost like the way that Igor looked at me and I looked at his work. And we sat down, this man and I, cause he caught me being a spy or a witness, which I guess photographers are but you don’t have to admit that. And we were sitting there and he said, “Isn’t everything so very
pleasant and agreeable?” I was like well life really
is miserable a lot of the time and we suffer. Photographers suffer, artists suffer. But this got into me and the next day I found
myself opening a notebook and writing something. And it’s in here. Now Igor wanted me to write
something for his book. What happened over time was that I wrote the
opening piece for his book about 35 times. There were 35 different ones until Igor finally said, “Um, Mary, I think you might
have a book of your own here.” And maybe you’ve also noticed, there’s an image that flips by that’s on the cover of my book. And it actually looks like me and Igor took this picture, I think, long before we ever met. So, out thin air, he conjured up me to write
something for his book and then with his other magical hand, he conjured up a book for me of, they’re not collaborations, they’re not direct responses. Maybe it’s what happens with
a photographer walks around and is in an environment for a while. But, well, I think it
attests to the power of art. And I would like to
read you the first piece which actually echoes the first piece, or the piece that I wrote for Igor’s book. And I still don’t know
if it’s a story, a poem, an essay or what it is. So, it’s called It Is Yours. Can you hear me okay? All right. Now remember, this person speaking is pretty much me, a person who knows
nothing about photography. It Is Yours. I have heard of a small black box a chamber with a pinhole into it funnels the light the light of the blaze
of a tree in a summer day or a street light and when this image, compressed into the
light enters the pin hole into the black box, the images is upside down. The branches of the tree
are on the floor of the box. The roots are the ceiling. It is bounced inside this
impossible confined space and has landed upside down. But who will write the image? Who will sort this out, decipher and order it? Who even knows it exists? How is it for the tree, blazed by the light, now inside that small black box? And who is here with it? A person so small, a child, who does not understand
how images are made or how they are sorted one to the other and pressed together to make something, a sequence of events a continuum, a sentence of images. What is it telling us? What does it want to say? The tree, the image? Who is it who sees what is being seen and made re-seeable inside
that sealed chamber? The black box is a book with a white box inside of it. The child is inside of the white box. How can he get out? Must he leave by the pinhole? What is reality? This is his question. Is it the tree he once saw there? The tree who came through
and laid down his head? The tree, the same tree
that may be there now at the corner of the park, its leaves lost in some storm? The tree he can touch again but it is not the same. He must not look at it at all. He can only shut his eyes and remember it. Perhaps that is in the
impossibility of truth an attempt at history which a remembering of something which may or may not
have been there at all in the way it is remembered Its remembering is what
is to be remembered. That fact, that its
remembering was remembered is the only fact, the only truth. So, the book is on the shelf. The images inside it are pressed next to each other in
ways when they occurred they never encountered one another. They have been pressed into a new time and here they are safe. They make a story in the child’s mind. His eyes are the captions, his fingertips as the pages turn are the words. It would be impossible
to describe each one its associations its moment, the choice, what each gesture costs, its intricacies, the parts
of it that flitted away. Each image chosen represents
something else lost. History is impossible. The intense consciousness of reality can crush us were we to capture each detail. The book is on the shelf and it is open in our
minds at the same time. It is something real he
can hold in his hand. Here, take it, it is yours. So, I think this book is really my, my gratitude to photographers
and to Igor Posner. So, thanks, thank you. (clapping) – So, the question is the relationship between the photographic
narrative and music and my answer is the
relationship is immense. Because what happens with constructing photographic narrative is that you often come
across a repetition. It’s a huge problem so you sort of feel okay, I
think I already said about that so I am I repeating this? But, in music, the beauty of music, I mean I’m referring to classical music, is that the way its constructed, for the main part, is that
everything is a variation on the same theme but played in different key. And that’s I think that’s
where it flows, right? I mean the story is important because there’s a visual
writing but for visual writing is a challenge and actually a literary writing is a challenge because for me I think there should be a certain sense of rhythm and I think I’ve
mentioned that it’s rather intuitive than analytical. Its always this collision. So, I think that, yeah… That’s where I think the music, the music is important. I actually studied a basic construction of a classical composition when I was working on this when I really had a block. I thought maybe that would help and it did in some sense. So, even though it might
not make sense to you but it helped me and I just want to share
this with the audience. – [Host] On the theme of Russia. – Yes? – [Host] You know if you, the beautiful text that you read, didn’t necessarily bring
up any Russian motifs, but was your trip to St. Petersburg or you connection to Russian communities in any way significant in writing this or did Russia totally… – Oh, that’s an excellent question because it was extremely significant. In fact part of the mystery I think, that Igor is talking about or the many coincidences was not only that I had been to Petersburg when it was, at that time, when I was impressionable, but that motif continued to
thread through my own life and I’m actually, my
partner is someone who lived in Russia for 10 years. And, so I was already very steeped in Russian sensibility, Russian culture, Russian literature, Russian soul. So, certainly, so in this book there are pieces that some people ask me were they translated from Russian. So, that is also a way that the works are speaking to each other. And I think mentioned to some of you even in writing and editing when I got back here I would take the train
out to Brighton Beach and the B train in particular and I would edit and
write right on the beach. And that’s like when it happens, like with photography. When it comes to you, you write it down. So… – [Host] It’s funny, because the first time
that I read your book was on the B train to Brighton Beach. – Yes, I remember. And you posted a picture of a student reading
my book on the B train where I had written the book. And you didn’t know that. It was wild. And today, I was so
nervous about this talk that I left New York City
teaching fellows early, told them I had a very
important appointment and I went to Brighton Beach and I swam for an hour. And I got some Russian food also. So, it’s all in there. – The books are available. You can buy this one as a stand alone or Mary’s as a stand alone or you can buy them as
a bundle and save money. All right? So, this book, these two books are almost sold out. We’re at the end of our
run, so take advantage. And I think Mary and I will
be happy to sign it for you. (clapping) – [Mary] Thank you, thank you.

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