Part of the Seeing the Scene Series
Reuben Radding was attracted to alternatives from a young age: alternatives to mainstream music and media as well as different ways to imagine how artists can use their time to make art. He grew up in a thriving Washington, D.C. punk scene that helped shape his sense of what it means to participate in a music scene as well as how to do DIY more generally. Reuben came to photography much later, but those early lessons in D.C. continue to inspire his current work in New York City. This work grows from and helps expand a photographic history of street photography in New York. Reuben has become an important voice in contemporary street photography and his consistent production of new photozines documents contemporary urban life in exciting ways.
Daniel: Although I want to focus on your street photography, I know you have a lot of connections to different aspects of punk. Let’s start with your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get into punk?
Reuben: Yeah, there is totally a connection to where I come from. I was born and raised in the Washington D.C. area. When I was a kid, even before I was in high school, my sister had a boyfriend who was in a band. They weren’t really punk rock, but at that point anything that wasn’t mainstream was interesting to me. The idea that there were local people in rock bands was a revelation: he and his friends were going out to clubs in D.C. It’s what I wanted to do.
I was a musician starting when I was eleven. When I was in the first year of high school, I started getting really into the punk and new wave scene. I started going to shows when I was fifteen but I had no money, I had no car, and no older sibling to take me to things. I was just really on my own. I discovered zines. And more than just finding out where things were happening, zines also helped me find out who were these people and what they were doing. I remember how immediately I felt like there were these personalities, people to know: Ian MacKaye, Boyd Farrell, or whoever. And they all had something to say. It wasn’t just about music, although music would have been enough for me. But then there was also this ongoing conversation about things in the zines and about what a scene should be because there was all this regionalism back then that I think we’ve kind of lost. Things like a fifty-cent fanzine were like gold to me. I would re-read them hundreds of times.
Later, things got easier because I was in bands. The last band that I was in when living in D.C. was called Dain Bramage. Our bass player had a van, so the world opened up. [laughs] I was always in bands with people older than me and that really helped because they all had way more means than I did. Anyway, I did all that until I was twenty-one and then I moved to New York.
Daniel: What’s the date range? And why do you move to New York?
Reuben: I probably started going to shows and around ’82 and I moved to New York in ’88. I moved for a couple reasons. The drummer from Dain Bramage left to join this band Scream, who were really well established. He was the best drummer in D.C. and it was almost impossible to replace him. The bass player and I tried for a while, and we had no luck. Everybody we tried was just clearly second best.
Daniel: The drummer leaves your band to join Scream to replace Dave Grohl or are you talking about Dave Grohl?
Reuben: I’m talking about Dave Grohl.
Daniel: Obviously he goes on to big things.
Reuben: Yeah, it worked out really well for him. Eventually our bass player moved to New York. I had never really spent time in New York, and I was starting to go up there with my girlfriend at the time. We were going to a lot of shows up there and checking out the record stores. I was just intoxicated by New York. Until then I had never imagined I would ever leave D.C. In fact, I felt a little defensive about D.C., but I was just completely won over by New York City, just the experience of being there. I hatched this plan with my girlfriend to move, and it took about a year to get it together. I was not quite twenty-two yet. I just never looked back and hardly ever visited D.C. after that.
Daniel: Did you still play music when you moved to New York?
Reuben: Yeah, that was the real focus for me, aside from the fact that I felt like I needed to be here for the culture of the place. At first it was really disappointing. It was hard to find people who had the same mindset and language about it that I had. I had grown up in this scene, where we had all developed a whole language and procedure: rehearsing and making demos and then getting stuff out into the world in our own weird way. Musical taste was not a problem; there were a lot of people interested in cool things in New York. It was hard to find my tribe here at first. I started randomly auditioning for bands. I would answer ads in the Village Voice and just show up to these auditions and play these people’s songs straight down. They’d ask me to be in their bands and I usually said no.
Then, I got the chance to be in this one band. The drummer from Television, Billy Ficca, was playing with them. And I was a big fan of Television. I thought, “Well, to be in a band with this guy, no problem.” I joined, but then that was right about the time that Television did their reunion in the early ’90s. I stopped wanting to play with the band, but then they started offering to pay me to stick around and finish out some shows.
Around the time I moved to New York I’d started to develop this curiosity about how people become freelance musicians. I would read about these people, especially guitar players I loved, like Marc Ribot. I wondered: “How does that happen?” The only life I knew was being in bands. This band went through a lot of drummers when Billy went back to Television. All of these freelance drummers liked me, and so they started recommending me to other people. And the next thing I knew I had this career as a freelance bass player. I kept that going for a really long time and that led me into the avant-garde improvised music scene. That was my focus, for the most part, from my mid-twenties until around the time I was forty. Even then I didn’t stop playing, but slowly photography came into the picture and took over my life.
Daniel: Before we dive into your photography, I think See Hear provides a nice link between your discovery of punk and the production of your photozines. Just for context for folks who don’t know, See Hear was a zine shop in New York City that was open from the late 1980s through the early 2000s. Can you talk about working there during a time when zine culture was expanding and gaining a lot of mainstream attention?
Reuben: It’s an important part of my story. This was late 1988. I just moved here, and I went to this benefit show it CBGB’s for See Hear. I had never heard of See Hear; I didn’t know what it was, but Sonic Youth were playing, and I think B.A.L.L. were playing, and somebody else really great. I went to the show and, at the end of the show, Ted Gottfried, the owner of See Hear, got on stage with Thurston Moore and explained to those of us who didn’t know what the benefit was all about. See Hear was in a basement and it had gotten flooded. They were raising money to get it back on its feet. Ted was up there saying, “Look, we’re open for business, please come by. Thanks so much for all your help. We’re going to survive this.” Thurston described it as a zine store. I thought, “Wow, a zine store. I need to go there.” But then it took me a while to get there.
I remember, I was really unhappy in my job, and I decided to go look for a new job. I was walking all over the East Village and couldn’t find anything. I was really depressed and then I was like, “Well, why don’t I go to See Hear? Maybe I can buy a zine or something.” I walked in and the first thing I saw was a bulletin board with show flyers and stuff like that. There was a thing right in the middle of it that said: “Do you want to work here? If so, talk to the guy behind the counter.” I turned to the guy behind the counter, pointed at the thing, and I said, “I want to work here.” He had me leave a note for Ted. Ted called me later and we talked. He offered me a job there. It was really crazy because that was right as his daughter was about to be born, so he really needed somebody to get up to speed quickly, to be able to basically work every day.
I went overnight from being this guy working in an art supply store to being the counter guy at See Hear basically every single day for most of the time. I met so many people through that job. Back then, because it was pre-internet and because there were so few places to get information, that place was the hangout for the music scene. And it really helped that it wasn’t a record store. It was a place for people to share information. It was just part of people’s regular rounds. They’d go around to the record stores, they’d pop into See Hear. Everyone from the biggest music writers in the world to punk kids who are just finding out about zines were all there. And there was this buzz shortly after that about zines that was reaching the mainstream press. Every major media outlet was doing these stories about zines. “What are they? They’re sweeping the nation. Homemade magazines. What are they for?” Very quickly, Ted started making me the point man on those media requests. MTV came to do a segment in the store, and I was interviewed in it, even though I wasn’t the owner of the store. [laughs] It was exciting but also kind of a big joke. Where have these people been?
Daniel: And one last punk-oriented question before we get into street photography. Were you paying attention to the photographers who were documenting the D.C. scene while you were there?
Reuben: I was certainly aware of Lucian Perkins’ work. I wasn’t necessarily thinking of it like “Ooh, photography;” it was more like “Ooh, Bad Brains.” I knew the photographers in the D.C. scene, like Cynthia Connolly. To me, those people were really important for their contribution; it conveyed the excitement of what we were into. I think it’s so easy to take all that for granted. Now, everything is photographed: from the most unattended punk show to great, grand events. But at the time, it was like, “Oh my god, this person is here with their camera and flash and willing to get in the pit.” These people were heroes.
Daniel: Absolutely. They documented something that at the time people just did. It’s hard to think about what is happening now becoming a foundation for a new genre of music.
Reuben: I mean we knew the Bad Brains were great and we knew that they were going to be remembered, but I don’t think any of us could have imagined that the Bad Brains would be repeatedly on the ballot for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and that we’d be looking at pictures of them at Madams Organ taken by Lucian Perkins for fifty years. I don’t think we really had thoughts about the next fifty years. [laughs] Kudos to these people for having the wherewithal to document that stuff.
Daniel: There’s an interesting link between these efforts to document punk scenes and then sharing the photos through zines. You were obviously well located to see these connections between your time in D.C. and then working at an important zine shop.
Reuben: I can’t say I was particularly inspired by the photography in the zines at that time only because the limitations of cheap reproduction made it such that the zines didn’t tend to be so focused on photography. There would be pictures in a lot of zines, but photography wouldn’t be the primary focus. They would tend to be primitively reproduced. I think there were things that we were selling, though, that I really responded to visually in terms of photography. We were selling the books by RE/Search from San Francisco, and they had really great photography in their books by people like Charles Gatewood. He was a terrific artist.
When I was a kid in D.C. with no money, if I managed to buy some book that had photos of things I was interested in, I was going to digest it really thoroughly. I was going to look at it over and over and over because I didn’t have anything else. For instance, in the early ’80s I got this book, that I still have, called Cool Cats. It is about rock’n’roll and youth culture fashion. It had essays for each section written by interesting people like Ian Dury or Paul Weller. I just ate that alive. They had credit lines for every photo, and I obsessed on these names even though I had no way to know anything about them. People like Anton Corbijn had a lot of photos in there, Pennie Smith. Those names became iconic to me. The year before I moved to New York, I was working at Tower Records and I got access to a lot more interesting underground publications, and so I obsessed on photographs by people like Julia Gordon, who had photographed a lot of the no wave scene. In that sense, I was interested in the photography, but not because of photography. Looking at stills from Richard Kern films pointed the way towards a life that looked way more interesting to me than what I was surrounded by.
Daniel: At what point did you start making photographs?
Reuben: I had a brief flirtation with it in my mid-twenties. I got a camera and started playing around, but then it felt like something that I wasn’t going to get good at unless I robbed time away from my main interest in music. Then somebody walked off with my camera at a restaurant and in some weird kind of immature resentment I just said, “Okay, well screw it, I’m not a photographer” and didn’t get a camera again until I was around forty. But it’s really interesting to me sometimes to go back and look at the few pictures I have from that brief flirtation. It might have been not even a year that I was taking pictures, but a lot of them are really reminiscent of what I would end up doing later. I think my interest was always really the same, which was the life on the street in New York and other kinds of events that felt exciting and maybe a little scary to me.
Daniel: It’s interesting that there are these hotbeds for street photography: New York, Paris, London, Tokyo, and Hong Kong seem to be the big ones. There you are in New York. What is it about New York that makes it such an interesting place to photograph?
Reuben: I think the easy answer isn’t necessarily the truest one. The easy answer is that there’s just so many people here in such a small footprint and that it’s such a pedestrian-oriented city; it’s not a car culture city. People’s day-to-day happens out on the street. But I think actually that doesn’t even sufficiently explain it because I’ve been to some other really busy cities and busy occasions where you don’t feel the same kind of possibility.
In the long term, a lot of it has to do with the way New York is constantly changing. And that kind of continual change breeds a constant sense of surprise and of unpredictability. I still remember walking out my door my first day living here and just feeling like I was in a movie. Despite so many of the things I loved being gone, and so many of the neighborhoods that I loved are just hardly even a shadow of their former selves identity-wise, it kind of doesn’t matter to me because I still can walk the same streets after all these years and see something I didn’t expect to see. That keeps me excited about New York.
As far as historically why New York is such a spot for photographers in general— not just myself—a lot of it is what I was saying about the pedestrian culture, but also the mixture of cultures. Everybody’s just shoved in here together, immigrant cultures. And everybody’s scrambling to find a way to make their own paths. It’s a very DIY city and I think that makes things exciting. And then on top of that, you have all these famous buildings, famous bridges that have been the subject of so many movies and everything else that you know you feel like you have the chance to do something kind of iconic here.
And that also affects who comes here. Who moves to New York? It’s not people who are thinking they don’t really have something they want to do. It’s way too expensive and too much of a pain in the ass to be here if you don’t have something you’re really motivated by and passionate about. I think being surrounded by that passion was another big motive for me. I remember that was a big frustration when Dave Grohl left our band. We might be able to find a pretty decent drummer, but would he really want to show up for practice? He might feel like watching TV. In New York, even the shittiest drummer was like, “Yeah, I’ll practice.” Everybody wanted to do it, and that was important. It doesn’t matter which specific interest motivates you, you’re here to really do it. I think that contributes a lot to why there’s so much street photography: you’re surrounded by people who are really going for it in one way or another. That going for it might mean they’re begging on the street, or it might mean that they’re building something, but there’s activity.
Daniel: You are describing an energy that can be a magnet for people in general as well as a context for doing photography. You said a moment ago that when you look back at those photos from your twenties that you could see something that linked to the kind of photos you’re making now. Can you talk a little bit about what you’re trying to achieve with your photography? What are the kinds of things you’re looking to document and what catches your eye when you’re making photos?
Reuben: It’s many different topics at once that we’re talking about because the impulse to be out there doing it is very separate to me from the end product. The artifacts of that practice don’t necessarily shed a lot of light on the experience itself; they are a byproduct of it. But for me, the more time goes by, and the more I’ve developed what I consider a voice, it feels like the mission isn’t really for pictures. But the mission has no point without pictures. It’s really a funny dichotomy. The real point—and I’ve really felt this all the more since the pandemic—is for me to be living this life 24/7 that is about not having a normal life. I didn’t fully understand this until a few years ago, but when I was a really young kid, like maybe in seventh or eighth grade, I somehow formulated this idea that an artist was somebody involved in their art making 24/7. They didn’t have normal time. You know, there wasn’t boring mundane time. You were living this fantastical life and artists to me were all multi-disciplinary. The first band I was into as a kid was the Beatles. John Lennon wrote books; he acted in movies; he made records, including different kinds of records. He did all these different things, and it all seemed like it was all just part of one life. I didn’t even think about the word career; it was about a life. And that’s just what I imagined I would do.
Being a musician always felt a little bit frustrating because I was constantly having to wait: waiting to get the right people together, to have a place where we could practice, to have the right equipment, to get the equipment from one place to another to have a gig, to wait all day to do the gig. It was just constant waiting and I wanted to be doing it all the time and have there be no separation between my normal life and my art-making life.
As I got more serious about photography in my early forties, I started to feel how that was available to me. That didn’t mean I had to take pictures twenty-four hours a day; it just meant that it was possible to take a picture any time, that at any time something might happen that would make me feel that impulse to press the button and I could do it. There was nothing to stop me. When I realized the truth of that a few years ago as a conscious thing, that I was solving this problem I’d had since I was barely a teenager, it was just a huge epiphany. It’s just been amazing ever since then—and especially since the pandemic when all the other things I was involved in just vanished overnight. There became really no excuse to keep me from being out on the street every day.
Somewhere along the way, I think in my thirties, I had gotten very interested in Buddhist notions of practice. The idea of a practice being something you do for its own sake and through all circumstances. Those are the two key points I live by today. I do my practice under all circumstances, and I do it for its own sake. Now, I hope there will be pictures and I hope that those pictures will be different than all the other pictures I see. But I continue to do this because of what it gives me in my life—this kind of sense of being, of having a real place in this world. When I walk through New York now, I feel like I’m intrinsically part of it even though it’s not like I’m walking around announcing myself as a photographer and wearing some kind of photo suit. It has become this way of being myself that doesn’t rely on anybody giving me anything. Does that make sense?
Daniel: Yeah, it does.
Reuben: Then there’s also the pictures. I remember at a certain point early on realizing that I did not have as much talent for photography as I did for music. I mean, that was easily verifiable. When I was a really young musician from my earliest attempts to play with other people, it was clear to me that I could do it. I still had things to learn and ways I needed to improve, but I could do it.
In the beginning with photography, I did not have any assurance of that. I would go out and burn a few rolls of film and then look at the results and it didn’t look anything like what I had imagined; it looked horrible. [laughs] The lucky part is that being as old as I was at the time, I realized that everything I wanted was learnable. If I could just embrace the practice and keep learning from every source I could find, I would certainly get better. I didn’t know if I’d ever be great, but I knew I’d get better.
At first that led me to a lot of photo interests that I don’t really care about now, but I just wanted to try everything: to understand a camera, to understand how people make different kinds of pictures that I’d seen already. My value system from a life of art making was that I wanted to have my own voice and I understood that that wasn’t something you just choose, like, “Oh, I know I’ll take a little bit of William Klein and a little bit of Helen Levitt and a little bit of Charles Gatewood and I’ll just stick them together.” That to me was what posers do, fakes. I wanted to really come from who I was, so at a certain point, all of these kinds of more either commercial interests or imitative interests they really fell by the wayside, especially because I was never very good at imitating. Anytime somebody wants me to imitate somebody else’s style, my heart’s just not fully in it. My skills aren’t really there because I spend all my time working on these very specialized skills that are based on my personality.
I’ll read these silly blogs about street photography and you’ll see all this advice about how you should behave on the street to take street photographs. The worst thing you can do to integrate yourself into a world you want to photograph is to act in a way you think people want instead of being who you really are. I teach now, and I tell the students to be yourself. If you’re really a timid, shy person, be that. Take the photos that gives you a chance to take. Push at the boundaries of that as much as you feel okay with, but don’t feel like you have to suddenly become some swashbuckling confrontationalist to take a good photo. Likewise, if you’re a swashbuckling confrontationalist, you don’t have to turn that off. I mean, you may want to check it now and then. Everyone has their own thing to bring to the table, so we have room for all that. We have room for Bruce Gilden and we have room for PL diCorcia. We have room for all of it in an art form. It’s like thinking every guitar player has to be Jimmy Page or Angus Young. No, there’s Richard Thompsons in the world and there’s Ian MacKayes in the world.
I think I was really lucky that I came to photography late, when you really come down to it. I had learned so much about what it is to be an artist already that I understood a lot more about what my mission might be other than, “I’d like to have pictures like so and so and get them into such and such a place.”
Daniel: You expressed the importance of immersing yourself as a reflection of this vision of an artist that you developed when you were young. Can you talk about the way you enact this practice: your general process in terms of how often you shoot, what you look for, and how you decide a photo is ready to share?
Reuben: It’s gone through an evolution. At this point, unless there’s something really pressing keeping me from photographing, like I’m sick or distracted by some other major responsibility, I am out every day. I have recently been experimenting with taking Mondays off. [laughs] Only because I really ran myself into the ground in 2020. I just went into complete overdrive and by the end of January 2021 I was really feeling my age. The only downside of starting photography on the late side is this is a physically demanding photography. I’m about to turn fifty-five, and it doesn’t feel like it did when I was forty-five.
About my process, I would say there’s a small percentage of the time where I have some sort of destination in mind, or some sort of event I know is happening that I think I’m going to try and get to. The majority of the time my goal is to get my ass out the door and that usually begins with absolutely no expectation of where I’m going to be or where I’m going to go. Sometimes that means I leave the house and just start walking and then see what I feel like. Other times I feel like I’ve just got to get straight to Manhattan. I live in Brooklyn. I still tend to lean on Manhattan as my primary environment, but I have a lot of Brooklyn pictures now.
I’ve shot in every borough of the city, but I will say I feel a lot of guilt about neglecting Queens as much as I have. I think it’s a fascinating borough and under-photographed. The only reason I don’t photograph it more is because if I want to go photograph in Queens, it means I leave the house and it’s going to be an hour until I’m shooting. Again, I don’t want to wait. I want to be working. If I go out and shoot here in Brooklyn, I can start working from the second I walk out the door. I’ve gotten photographs on my block that I’m happy with. That’s really hard to give up in favor of: “Well, you know I’d really like to go shoot in Queens” and then you spend much time sitting on the subway listening to a podcast and hoping something will happen on the train and it doesn’t and then I just started getting impatient. Same with the Bronx. I mean, for me to go to even the South Bronx from where I live, I’m looking at an hour and a half on the train. I think that will happen, but inevitably I end up spending more time in Manhattan and South Brooklyn as my go-to.
Then, as far as the rest of the process, about five or six years ago I pretty much gave up shooting film primarily for reasons of productivity. It was either going to take more time to develop and scan my negatives or more money to pay other people to do it. Another big change for me was that I pretty much dedicated myself to shooting in black and white. It had always been the thing I felt closer to, but I had always felt a little bit like I had to have a certain allegiance to the subject matter. Certain subject matter just really seemed like it was supposed to be in color for it to work. Then I took a workshop about nine years ago with Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb. It was a life-changing experience. The workshop was great, but honestly, the first day was where the most important thing happened, which was they looked at about thirty of my photos—little prints that I brought. I had brought a mix of black and white and color. I didn’t tell them that I was wrestling with this problem of how to mix these and I was afraid to commit to one or the other. They looked at the work and they just turned to me and said, “Yeah, you don’t really need to ever shoot color again as long as you live.” I think some people would have been really hurt by that, but I felt so relieved to have somebody of their stature, who I respected so much, give me that permission to really run with the thing that was clearly more my voice. I’ve never looked back.
Daniel: If you do not have somewhere you need to be that day, will you go with the rhythm of the day or do you have a schedule you try to follow when you go out to shoot?
Reuben: In the last few years, it may not have to be a completely full day, but if I’m not out for at least four hours, I feel like I haven’t really done anything. It is funny because I might get the picture of the day in the first ten minutes. But it might be in the last ten minutes. I remember nine years ago in that workshop with the Webbs, I pushed myself considerably harder in that workshop than I had up to that point. And I remember how I would reach a point of being tired and bored, but then I would think, “Yeah, but I don’t know if I have anything worth sharing yet with the workshop.” I would challenge myself to stay out for another hour. And sometimes I would get amazing stuff, for me, in that last hour. That was a real revelation that if I were to go by my impulses or feelings about what’s possible or what I felt like doing, that might be cutting myself off from my best success. I still do a version of that now. Say I’ve been out walking for six or seven miles and I’m feeling kind of bored or feeling like, “Oh, what’s the point?,” I’ll make some dumb little challenge for myself. “Okay, I can go home, but first I have to walk the twenty blocks from here to this particular other train station.” Or I’ll go to this bookstore that will take me about twenty minutes to walk to and during those twenty minutes I’ll forget I was bored and tired. You just need little pushes sometimes.
Having a destination can be nice. Maybe there’s going to be this really crazy protest going on at about 5:30 or 6:00. If I leave the house at 4:00, I will only shoot for a little while before the protest. But if I leave the house at noon then I’ll be out shooting for five or six hours before I get to this thing that I’m going to want to be at for a couple more hours. Frankly, not only do the longer days often yield more photos—certainly yield more chances at them—they also yield a much greater sense of reward.
When I first get outside, my mind is filled with argument, resistance, judgments, and all these distractions. I’m very self-conscious, but after I’ve been out long enough, all of that drops away. I feel like I don’t even really exist; I’m this spirit walking through this world and yet also being part of it. It’s kind of hard to put into words. But it’s not something you can necessarily see in the pictures, or at least I don’t think so. But that sense of reward of feeling like I’ve really had an experience, that’s hard to get in a couple hours. If I stay out on the street for eight hours and do that several times a week, you’ll find a whole other level of being in this thing that really doesn’t have anything to do with photography. Photography becomes kind of like a great excuse for it, or maybe just a justification for it.
Everything I said earlier about those ideas I formed as a young person about what an art life was. I didn’t articulate that to anybody or myself. That was something I felt. Now, having the conscious awareness that I’m living that out and it’s available to me all the time. I might be discouraged when the sun goes down. Alright, maybe the day is over. Or if the weather really sucks, I might feel like I don’t really want to be out. But the truth is that it’s still available to me: I can still take pictures at night, and I can still take pictures in the rain, and I can still take pictures when it doesn’t feel good. That’s just a miracle to me that I don’t have to have anybody else’s approval or agreement. I feel incredibly lucky.
Daniel: We’ve been talking a lot about your process, but I also want to talk about the output of that work. Your zines are one way people can see the end product. Let’s talk about this part of your process.
Reuben: Self-publishing is something I’m really happy about. It gives me a way to combat my self-recrimination that I feel frequently that I’m not doing enough. A couple days ago I got a big zine order from a guy out West. He ordered one of every zine that I still have available. I had the stack of five or six zines, and I had them in chronological order. I thought that I should page through all of them, since I haven’t done that in a long time. I’ll never be able to really absorb them with completely fresh eyes because I just know all of these pictures so well. But I went through every page of all of them and I felt really satisfied. While not every single picture is an iconic banger, there’s really something there that’s accumulated that lets me know I have not been slacking. And that the work has developed over time.
Daniel: Your identification of an iconic banger gets at one issue I like to discuss in these columns: the role of a single photograph compared to a series of images that work together. I assume that a photo you consider to be strong when you’re making the zine will still be a banger five years later. But then there is the art and skill of sequencing to help manage the bangers and the other photos. “I think photo x is a good photo; it’s not an iconic photo. However, if I put it next to photo y and three pages later photo z is presented, I can sequence the zine in a way that makes a story.” The photos that are not iconic gain their visual power because of their relationship with the other photos. Do you think that way in terms of your sequencing process?
Reuben: I very much do, although I have different metaphors that I’m working from. In particular, I really avoid thinking about the word “story.” I find that counterproductive to what I do. I think about the things that I learned from music, from sequencing music and from making collections of music. Even within individual photographs, I’m thinking about the functional aspects of music. Not in a really literal way: “Oh, this is like a minor seventh.” Instead, I am thinking of photographs more like musicality, like tonality. Sometimes I’ll group pictures based on something I feel about their tonal values, whether that’s emotional or in terms of gray scales. I’m feeling it out that way.
Or, in terms of sequence, I think about the arcs of structure. I think you can think about structure and stuff like that without resorting to thinking of it as narrative, which I think most people think story is. I take story very seriously and I think that’s why I try not to even go there with this work, because I think story—there is story and then there’s sense of story. I have this one picture that I just call Lafayette Street; it’s of a Black woman who has got a white youth by their arm and she’s about to rush off with him. It’s this really kind of suspended moment. It seems to imply a lot of story, but it’s not a story.
A story to me involves either change or conflict, and we don’t really know what’s happening in a still photograph like that. We just get the sense that we are seeing an in-between state; they’re neither in motion, but they’re clearly not just in stasis. There’s something being enacted. The racial components, the age components, and the look in the kid’s face, it all implies this sense of a greater context that we aren’t privy to. There are a lot of questions in that picture, and I think my best pictures have the presence of unanswered questions. I want them that way. I would never in a million years write a caption that explains the whole situation because it would rob you of the best part of that experience. And it would rob me of that the best part of that experience.
I always thought the mission was to have every single photograph be a killer. Have no filler. That was my complaint when I tried to do sort of documentary-oriented work; it felt like there was always some piece of information you needed to convey in the story when you didn’t have a banger photo. Some kinds of information don’t have banger photos, there’s no iconic photo of something that just sets the scene or explains the relationship of a couple of people, like some sort of exposition of information. I didn’t want to have to include weak photographs in order to tell you something. Of course, it’s impossible to have every photo be a banger unless you wait for thirty or forty years and you can edit your life’s work down to the greatest hits.
Daniel: That makes sense. But as we have both said, it’s impossible to have nothing but perfect photos if you’re sharing more than one image.
Reuben: As I’ve been producing these zines, I’ve had to think in different ways. But mostly I think about it really musically. When we turn the page, what does it feel like when you see this spread and how can you have the photos in a spread really seem to relate to each other? But not be so on-the-nose that it feels like a big wink, like here’s a guy holding a candy cane and here’s a guy on the other page holding a walking cane. Alright [said with an exasperated tone], that’s too obvious. When something’s too obvious like that, the problem isn’t that it’s dumb, the problem is that it makes you think about the photographer. Now you’re thinking about the person who put those photos together, and I want you to just be thinking about the experience.
I’ve learned a thousand things about photography from being a musician. That’s something I also like to talk about a lot in the workshops. I think having seen all these lessons in multiple mediums gives me a sense of clarity about them that I never had from learning them the first time. I feel a clarity about them that’s not attached to the specifics of the medium or the specifics of being in a band or the specifics of making a record. When I used to make records with people, there would be arguments about how long an album should be. People would have their various opinions about that: “It’s got to be a certain length or you’re not giving people their money’s worth.” Or “If it’s too long then it’s not very interesting and starts to get boring.” I always thought, if you think an album is supposed to be a certain length then you’re not responding to the content. You’re assigning an arbitrary idea. How long should a photobook be? Should it be seventy pictures? One-hundred pictures? Forty pictures? I think it’s dictated by the content and what you’re trying to make with that content. I always felt like the best stuff, the content announces the possibility of how things could be formed.
With the zines, I usually start with some sense of what the cover might be. I know I want the cover to be pretty strong if possible. I did a series of zines at the beginning of the pandemic called Corona Diary. And the third one, the cover photo I definitely didn’t feel like was one of the very strongest. But I felt strongly about it, and I couldn’t find a place to put it in the edit where it felt natural. Everywhere I tried it in the edit it felt like it was just too separate, too on its own in terms of what it was saying and how it felt. It didn’t juxtapose well with others, so I made it the cover. Problem solved.
I’ll start with the idea of a cover and then I’ll think sometimes about the ending. Start with beginnings and endings; that’s a pretty good method if you’re doing something as informal as zine. Then from there, I’m looking at spreads and thinking about there being a little bit of a sense that every time you turn a page, you feel like you’re in a little bit of a different world, even if all of it is in New York City. I had a nice meeting with the curator of photos at the Museum of the City of New York. He had that suggestion. He said, “I really want to feel like every time I put up a different print that I’m looking at a whole other world. I don’t want to feel like I’m looking at five photos of the same sort of area.” And I felt like, “Yeah those are my values, too.” I really have pursued that extra hard ever since. That’s what I would really like to see in the zines, too, but that’s easier said than done.
The zines have been an incredible chance to experiment and play with how to present these photos in a way that doesn’t feel like there are so many consequences. If you do a real serious photobook that you have to pay many thousands of dollars to print, gosh your decisions feel really critical. I’m not unserious about the choices I make in the zines, but there’s also this sense of like well, “It’s just as zine.” It doesn’t have to be representative of my entire life’s work. I only make one hundred copies. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. I feel really free making zines and I feel really gratified making zines. I love that in this day and age, where most of our photography is digested on tiny glowing bricks through things like Instagram with these tiny sizes, that even a six by nine zine feels kind of luxurious. There are people who get one of my zines and they say, “Wow, I’ve never seen your pictures larger than on a phone; it’s pretty cool.” I’m thinking, “You should see a 16” x 20” print sometime.” [laughs] But that’s so gratifying that people respond to the zines.
Daniel: You’ve made zines that exist on their own and others that are part of a series, for example the Corona Diary. Additionally, you publish your work with other zines, such as Hamburger Eyes. How do you decide when it’s time to make a new zine?
Reuben: Unlike the old days, working at See Hear in the punk rock world, there is now digital printing, and I could use the web to sell. The thing that had haunted me in the music business was having a storage space filled with records and CDs I had played on that I couldn’t get rid of. I had piles of CDs propping up my bed and I had made a firm commitment I didn’t want to ever be in that position again. If I was going to make something, I want to see it get out the door. I didn’t have any money to put up, so I had found that you could do pre-orders via a web store. Digital printing is so cheap that after getting eight or ten pre-orders from people, I could pay for the print run. The risk was zero. Or at least I hoped it would be.
The first zine, I did I didn’t know whether anybody would buy it at all. But I quickly made enough from it from the pre-orders to pay for the print run. I did two of those in 2019 to have something to sell that was cheaper than prints. I didn’t think I was going to do any more for a long while. I didn’t really have the material and I didn’t want to pressure myself to produce products. Then COVID happened. There were no photography jobs to do, there was nothing to make money from, and so first I did the print sale on Instagram and made a few bucks from that; it was okay. Then I was like, “Well, now what am I going to do?”
At first, we all hoped maybe this pandemic thing will only be a few weeks. Then it became clear that we still don’t know how long it’s going to go on, but it’s probably gonna be a few months at least. By the time it was maybe a month or two into the pandemic, I had been out on the street shooting every day. Full days, usually. I had been posting like ten pictures a day on Instagram and Facebook and I was getting a lot of attention compared to previous years. Partly this was because I was one of the few people out there and people had so much curiosity about the world during the shutdown. But I think maybe more than anything, a lot of artists and a lot of photographers did not feel like they could go out and do that and there was a lot of conversation instantly within a couple weeks about how to stay creative during this time.
Because I was staying busy, people wanted to talk to me about it. I did a lot of interviews and talks. And I thought, “Well, I could do a zine.” I did the first Corona Diary and it sold out really fast. Then I thought, “Well, I’ll do another one” because I still had plenty more material. I did the second one and that sold out pretty quick. But I thought it would be absurd to do a third one. Every time I do anything that I sell, a zine or anything, I feel deeply embarrassed to be putting the request out there that people pay attention and give me money. It feels so antithetical to where I come from, in a certain way.
I asked a couple of the most skeptical and critical people I knew: “Do you think it would be ridiculous for me to do a third Corona Diary?” Instantaneously both of them were like, “No, you should totally do it.” Then at that point, I reached some kind of feeling that this is my thing, that I’m going to keep doing these. Especially because, as time went on, the world kept changing. As the world kept changing, the pictures kept changing. I felt like there’s a different world to look at now.
At the end of that year, I did the biggest one called After the End of the World, which is a forty-page zine. That felt really, really good. But then I thought maybe I’ve completed a cycle here. I never expected to do three. Doing four in a year; that’s a lot. Then I went to D.C. for inauguration week. Prior to that, I had been following around a lot of these anti-vaxxers and Trump supporters. I met this rather deranged Trump supporter on the street in New York, who saw me with my camera, and he said, “Take my picture. Show it to Como [guy mispronouncing Cuomo]. Send it to de Blasio.” All right, whatever. Then he said, “You’re a demon. You should put your pictures in a paper and call it Demon Week.” I thought, that’s actually a pretty good title, so I did a zine called Demon Week in early ’21.
Ever since then I felt like the time to do a zine is when I don’t have any other idea for how I’m going to make it through and I know I have enough work to support it. This year, 2021, it was Demon Week, At Large, and Space Invader. Each time I feel maybe this is the last one. But when it really comes down to it, it just feels like a useful way for me to put a cap on a period of time. The photos in the zines are not arranged chronologically, but the zines do take work from specific time periods of the year. I’m not reaching back into my archive from two years ago for a picture to make a sequence. I am restricting myself to what have I done since the last zine.