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Depth of Field

John Gossage Tears Down the Wall Between Photography and Art

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page C01

Berlin, since the wall came down, has gone all bright and glossy. It was shabbier, and grimmer, when Washington's John Gossage began his 10-year shoot there in 1982. There were tank traps in the squares and squatters making do in the city's big, abandoned, unheated apartments, and much rubbish. Berlin in the Cold War was a sullen and untended place. Gossage started making photographs. He felt utterly at home.

That's what he does. He walks and makes photographs. He's a street shooter.

Of the Berlin Wall, inspiration for his new book of photos, John Gossage says, "It was just too stupid. I knew it would come down the minute I saw it." (John Gossage)

He shot the beer cans in the bunkers, and the bruises on the buildings, and the weeds. Berlin is built on breakage, on crumblings of mortar, scraps of rusting metal, bullet-blasted bricks. Perfect. Also Berlin kept its street lamps off to give cover to escapees, so its shadows were terrific. And then there was the wall itself -- savage, blunt, ridiculous.

"It was just too stupid," says Gossage. "I knew it would come down the minute I saw it. Also it was haunted by the history. And by the weirdness of borders. It had everything I wanted."

It was perfect for his purposes, a city just as dark, just as rife with implication, just as layered as his art.

Most photographs look swift. Gossage's aren't like that. They're so densely woven of textures, geometries, innuendoes and facts that they feel slow. He won't let you read them quickly. His images propose too many thoughts at once.

"Berlin in the Time of the Wall," his big new photo book, was 10 years in the shooting and longer in production. It weighs seven pounds.

"That's because of all the silver," says the artist.

He's speaking of the silver nitrates that, darkening in focused light, give photographs their blacks. Blacks are a Gossage specialty. His night shots of Berlin couldn't be much darker. To discover what is in them you have to let your eyes adjust.

Published late last year in Bethesda (by Loosestrife Editions), printed in southeastern China (by ink experts) and shot, of course, in Germany, "Berlin in the Time of the Wall" is a remarkable object. It costs $165. It contains 464 Gossage photographs. "They observe the story," says Gossage, "but they are not the story.''

What they look like most is art. Often they suggest modern abstract paintings, and they would do so more often if they didn't show the real (the pigeons on the paths, the barbs of the barbed wire, the creases of the tablecloth underneath the coffee cup), if they weren't so thick with facts.

They are not about the badness of the communists, or the goodness of the free world, or anything like that. Still, they goad. At the back of this big book is a quote from Roland Barthes: "Ultimately, photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks."

He isn't famous. You don't see him on television. Gossage, 59, lives in Northwest Washington in a middle-size apartment with his cameras, his wife (photographer Terri Weifenbach) and rows and rows of photo books. He's been buying them since childhood. He likes living here. "Washington is easy," he says. Out the window through the branches is a glimpse of Rock Creek Park.

He brought his guitar and his motorcycle when he came to the District in the mid-'60s. He'd gotten into the Walden School, a Ford Foundation experiment, with five teachers and 15 students. He mostly dressed in black: black jeans, black leathers. There was an edginess about him, something darting, dark and prickly. There still is. It's in his pictures. "I can't help it,'" he says. "I'm more Rolling Stones than Beatles."

The pictures in his book don't only show Berlin. They are also about him.

Forty-five years ago, in his Staten Island high school the teachers found him hopeless. For refusing to read books, for cutting class incessantly and for too much wising off, they at last got him expelled.

Gossage didn't mind. He much preferred the street, even then.

He liked its scruffiness, its flow, the peeling of the posters, the patterns of the pavement cracks. Sometimes he took photographs. He liked wandering New York with no destination known. He liked the undertone of menace and the not knowing what would come next. Prowling and discovery are still central to his art.

Anyway, he got his revenge, and it was sweet.

The next time Gossage entered his classroom at Port Richmond High, it was to do a photo spread for Esquire magazine.

"They were doing a teenage issue," he recalls. "Diane Arbus was in it, too."

The commission came from Magnum, Manhattan's coolest agency. This is how he got it. In the magazines he flipped through -- Popular Photography, U.S. Camera -- "Magnum Photos" was the credit line beneath the pictures he liked best. So he packed a box of prints, looked up the address, took a subway into midtown, showed up at the desk and asked for the boss.

"Henri," the secretary said. "There's a boy here to see you."

Henri was, of course, the great Henri Cartier-Bresson. On anybody's list of the finest straight photographers, Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) has to be near the top.

Gossage says: "He put his head around the corner and studied me a while. 'Please,' he said, 'come in.'

"First, he looked at all my awful pictures. He told me -- he was very kind -- that I needed discipline. Then he took me through his contact sheets and invited me to lunch. And while walking to the restaurant he let me watch him work. I'd never seen anything like it. The people whom he shot didn't know that they'd been photographed. He moved like smoke."

The first photographs he sold were commissioned by a newspaper, the Staten Island Advance. He covered ballgames.

Sports photography is tricky. Miss the crucial play and you blow the whole assignment. Somewhere at its core his species of photography is still as much a sport as it is an art.

He was lucky. The photographers at Magnum let him hang out in the office, and Gossage got to meet some of the most serious artists who made photographs then working in New York. They formed a sort of coterie. He shook hands with the great Walker Evans. He went shooting with Diane Arbus, and they exchanged portraits. Gossage was the oddity, the mascot at Magnum's, the kid. During workshops at the home of street photographer Bruce Davidson, they let him in the room. He studied with Lisette Model. He discovered Garry Winogrand. He disputed with Lee Friedlander, Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams.

They taught him how to learn.

"When I was 15," he says, "I went through every print in every box in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art."

Here he did the same. He went methodically through the storage rooms at the Library of Congress and through the Alfred Stieglitz archive at the National Gallery of Art. The kid was gradually becoming a kind of academic, a scholar, an expert. That, too, is in his art.

He's half-outsider, half-insider. "What's impressive," says art dealer George Hemphill, "is the independence of the course's he's navigated. Gossage is an under-appreciated treasure. He traverses generations. I see him as a throwback to the 1950s, when artists who made their living through photography did so through their wits." Here he gets to be anonymous. But all through his career, John Gossage, the photographer, has been well known to the pros.

Leo Castelli, the legendary New York dealer, was showing Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg when he added Gossage to his stable. The art scout Walter Hopps was director of the Washington Gallery of Modern Art when he gave young Gossage a darkroom and a stipend. The Corcoran's Jane Livingston asked him to collaborate on scholarly exhibits, the University of Maryland hired him to teach. Also, he was shown at perhaps the best gallery in town, by dealer Harry Lunn.

"John is amazing. He has to be among the most important photographers, the most important artists, around," says Philip Brookman, senior curator of photography and media arts at the Corcoran Gallery. "Still, he's better known in Europe than he is in Washington. I'll tell you what I admire. It's his intent. When he's working, he's not just out there looking. He's a man on a mission."

"We've just acquired a great Gossage," Brookman added, "an early one, not what you'd expect. It's a portrait of Jimi Hendrix, and it rocks."

Good art is supposed to be intentional, accomplished and idiosyncratic. Gossage's is also learned. To look into his pictures is to see how much he knows.

He doesn't go for studio setups. Or big dye-transfer color prints. In a way he's a sort of a throwback. He won't use a tripod. His camera is hand-held. He doesn't send his negatives to the lab; he does his prints himself in a windowless darkroom in the basement of a Washington office building. He shoots in black-and-white.

Mostly he makes photo books. "The Pond," a kind of riff on Henry Thoreau's stay at Walden, came out 20 years ago. "Books don't vanish," he explains.

"I'm longtime lucky," says the artist. "I can pick up this little machine and walk out, and find meaning in the world."

It isn't just Berlin, and it isn't just the instant, that appear in his pictures. When he photographs the patchings of the bullet holes in the limestone of the Reichstag, or the emphatic no of a soiled, upright German hand pushing straight into his lens, or a watchtower, he is somehow reaching back to Mathew Brady's pictures of the Civil War. When he makes the grids of his complex compositions fit the framing edge just so, he's honoring Evans. When he photographs the spooky menace and efficiency of a bread-slicing machine, he is pointing to that blend of spontaneity and weirdness that one finds in Robert Frank.

It's odd: John Gossage shoots by reflex, his work depends on instinct. At the same time he's a classicist. An immaculately credentialed historical inheritance activates the depths of his many-stranded art.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company