In person, photographer John Rosenthal is very much as you’d expect him to be if you’ve been a regular listener to his commentaries on WUNC and National Public Radio. Which is to say that he is, in many ways, unexpected.
He is, for example, brilliant and sure of his ground, but the ground he stands on is his fundamental view that life is confusing, he’s confused by it, and confusion is OK.
He is very much a public figure–the result of several hundred radio essays–but he lives, and works, privately, in his dark room, listening to John Coltrane while he teases out the tones and textures of thousands of his photographic images.
As for photography itself, Rosenthal distrusts it. “When they say a photograph is worth a thousand words,” he laughs, “I don’t believe that at all–in the first place, it depends on whose thousand.”
No, the careless (or cynical) photographer can take pictures that may intend (or pretend) to convey one thing, but which will be received as something else entirely by virtually everyone who looks at them. Think, Rosenthal says, about a picture of a dead Nazi soldier. It may be sensitive to the soldier’s humanity. The soldier may have been a decent guy. Nonetheless, his image will convey only battlefield success, another bad guy killed, to an American viewer.
Rosenthal, in contrast to this, wants to “direct” the meanings his images impart. Furthermore, he’s determined that they be as accurate as possible–or, at least, not inaccurate. So he doesn’t photograph strangers, and even after he’s taken the time to learn who his subject is, he shoots only from a “respectful distance” that makes the context clear and eschews the suggestion of deep understanding.
One of the four photographs on his kitchen wall in Chapel Hill illustrates the point. It portrays a gravedigger in a black cemetery in Wilmington, N.C. The gravedigger stands, shirtless, shovel in hand, in a nearly finished grave. It’s a powerful image of a black man shot against a sun-drenched, almost tropical sky, but Rosenthal is not up close and personal, looking for a psychological statement. Rather, he says, “I’m far enough back that I can make no claims on him other than the richness of what he is doing.”
Rosenthal says the man was the official cemetery gravedigger. The man’s father was the gravedigger before him. His people, as he put it, do not believe in running machines over a grave. “We talked for a long time,” Rosenthal concludes softly, “and I felt like I earned that photograph.” He earned that much, in other words, but no more. “I just don’t think we have rights over people … to look at strangers and suggest anything about them that we don’t know.”
In this regard, Rosenthal is, of course, exactly what his radio listeners would expect: thoughtful, ethical and without pretension. Poet Alan Shapiro, who knows Rosenthal and his work well, calls him “a wonderful artist, a fine writer and one of the most incisive and least predictable public thinkers in the Triangle.” For his perceptive commentaries on subjects ranging from the ethical dimensions of aesthetic pleasure to civil rights, Shapiro says, he is a most deserving Indies winner.
Rosenthal tackles big ideas, but his method of doing so is to start small and “elevate the simple, quotidian elements of life into the realms of the artistic eternal,” says writer Kaye Gibbons. His approach is such a throwback, it’s absolutely radical to the modern sensibility, which fixates on what’s new and the speed with which it can be mass-produced.
Well, Rosenthal is a radical, going back to when the ’60s were ending and he was teaching English–Ph.D almost complete–at UNC-Chapel Hill. He headed the strike committee that followed the killings at Kent State, “the largest strike in university history,” he says with some pride. For that good service, and notwithstanding that he stood down Yippie plans for violence, he was singled out as the only faculty member or student not covered by the university’s post-strike amnesty. (After legal action, he was extended amnesty, but by then he was on his way out.)
A year in Greece followed, where he took a lot of pictures. He came back a photographer. At first, it was his way of reconnecting to the real world after being trained as an academic to ignore it. And it was fun–“a fund of happiness”–in a way academic life was not. Rosenthal walked the sidewalks of New York City, where he’d grown up, watching children play in the sunlight. He photographed the Jewish bread shops, old men building fires on the beach at Coney Island, old seltzer bottles in wooden crates. All were beautiful. All were part of a culture under attack from “progress”–or as a Rosenthal essay terms it, “the corrosive power of Time.”
These photographs, and many more taken over the years, were brought together in 1998’s Regarding Manhattan. The book is true to Rosenthal’s ethic. People are photographed at a distance, in places, and the subject is always the city, the civilizing place where people can live close together and yet retain the kind of privacy that’s impossible in town or suburb.
Rosenthal still treats New York as his laboratory and favorite subject. “I go there to remind myself what democracy is really like, what it looks like when everybody mingles–transvestites, gays, blacks, teenagers, hoodlums, storekeepers, intellectuals, journalists. They walk down the same street, and you can look at them and see: This is it, this is the heterogenous world.”
Sadly, though, that democracy is disappearing. Corporate control and the wealth it provides to those who conform to it are homogenizing Manhattan and pricing everybody else out, he says.
The same desire for speed and “efficiency” is at work in Chapel Hill, Rosenthal says, a place where he chooses to remain because of close friends and the stability it has afforded him, his two children and wife, Paula Press–but it’s a place he likes “less and less.” Meadowmont, bigger roads to Raleigh, traffic and pollution, he says flatly and without elaboration, “will effectively destroy Chapel Hill as a reasonable place to live.”
The uselessness of efficiency is a regular Rosenthal radio theme. “If there’s an overriding need I feel, it’s to slow things down,” he says. “I can’t imagine that there’s any truth or beauty in the acceleration that seems to be the point of everything today.”
Yet, even on this point–especially on this point–Rosenthal doesn’t preach. He doesn’t talk down, or tell you “how to” or “how I learned to.” He hates pontification, or any suggestion that his life, or take on life, is better than yours. Instead, he tries to present an image–respectfully observed–and let you make of it what you will.
One example is “Sav-A-Center,” a favorite essay about the old grocery store nearby. It had real people, rubbery carrots. Now it’s a “market” ringing with cell phones, where the zucchini bread is $4 a loaf and the chicken sandwiches are made with grapes.
In “August, 1964,” another favorite, Rosenthal’s subject was beauty. He was on the beach with a young woman. She was “unashamedly in contact with the actual beauty of things.” He’d snickered at that. A piece of driftwood she liked? “Big deal,” he’d said, and “something about literature and sculpture being beautiful, not something you find on the beach.”
“I said that kind of thing for years and years,” the essay concludes. “But that’s not all I remember. I remember this: When she knelt down to the blanket, the driftwood still in her hands, tears were streaming down her face. What I don’t remember, and will never know, is whether she was crying for beauty or for me.”