CW This gets us back to the humanism of your practice. Your approach has long been predicated on a sense of openness and reciprocal trust between strangers. In The Nine, this lenticular empathy transforms an erred strip of blight, prostitution and addiction into something far more human. It makes me curious about your upbringing. Can we go back to what preceded your artistic practice, and try to understand why you began putting people in front of your lens?
KG As a kid, I never aspired to be “an Artist.” I had no reference for that, or at least for what our collective perception of an artist looks like. For me, my grandmother embodied what it meant to be an artist, to experience the life-sustaining potential of art. My grandparents lived in a funeral home. They kept a red phone in the hallway, and we knew that when it rang, it meant that someone had died. That phone loomed large in my imagination: Who had died? Did he live well or die with regrets? Would she be missed? When would the phone ring next? Growing up, this was all normal; the facts of our lives, the insidious particulars that we experience as commonplace, only reveal themselves much later as the very things that help define us.
We all perceived my grandmother as eccentric and remote, always lost in her own world. She busied herself by photographing the things around her: a lamp, a rose bush, lawn chairs. She photographed birds at the feeder and parades as they passed, making meticulous notes on the back of each photograph. (“The Blue Jays arrived today! So lovely!”) But the world I observed was markedly different from the one in her pictures. I realized that my grandmother was reinventing history, reconstructing her reality though images. So I understood early on that the camera lies, and that photographs often reveal more about the maker than they do their subjects.
She eventually gave me my first camera: a Kodak Instamatic with the flashcube. After that, I mediated the world through that lens. Everything fascinated me, and the world was more compelling, more mysterious when described in a photograph. Underlying all of this, however, was a deep melancholy, a kind of desperation to stop time from passing. I photographed people obsessively, which had everything to do with understanding that they wouldn’t be around forever. The photograph was proof that they’d been here—this moment had happened, this person had mattered.
As far as religion, my family was strict Irish-Catholic, and I attended a crazy Opus Dei school where I had to go to Confession each day. Every lesson reinforced finality; every decision was a matter of Heaven or Hell; every commandment began “Thou Shalt Not.” I deeply resented those restrictions and I developed another life, completely hidden, where I broke those rules, tempted fate. But I still believe in the basic tenets of most religious thought. They’re underlying principals found throughout art and literature—Chekov and Joyce, Marilyn Robinson and Alice Munro. Each one observes and understands what it means to be a human being with contradictions and flaws. They see complexity in every detail, and tackle the big stuff through “small” stories—the universal revealed through the specific.
CW Yes, but a specific that is honed and refined by its author—which brings us to the equation of an image with its maker. You’ve described two poles: Confession, which demands unabashed honesty, and then the pattern of hidden truths and subverted desires born from this very expectation. I’d argue that your practice today bridges these poles, highlighting the complex relationship between photographer, subject and viewer. Your work shines an unyielding light on suffering while maintaining the complexity of each subject. Can you speak at all to these acts of observing, interpreting, projecting?
KG This question makes me think of post-mortem photography from the Victorian era. Photography has always had a direct relationship to death; the very act of photographing a person (dead or alive) produces this object: a memento mori, meaning, “remember you must die.” So when I photograph people, there’s a kind of paradox at play: on one level, I’m asserting the significance of each person and every detail, while at the same time the photograph is a reminder of our impermanence, our mortality. This sense of inevitable loss is palpable, almost overwhelming. It could easily go two ways: it could mean savoring each moment, or it could elicit something more reckless. My practice embodies both.