Folks! We’re pretty pleased over here today, because we’ve nailed down an interview with brilliant documentary photographer James Pomerantz.
Here is James in his recent press photo for PDN’s 30 winner’s circle. I asked him a load of questions about his work, his background, and his future– and he told me stories about his fiancée and a teacher who once told him he took pictures like a dentist.
Read the Qs and the As below.
First off, tell me about your Agua Sagrada work. What is going on here? I find these stunningly beautiful, sort of like the dark flip side of Misrach’s On The Beach work. How did this work come about?
The photographs were made during a trip to Mexico earlier this year. The main purpose of the vacation was to relax and propose to my girlfriend, but money is too tight to travel for a week and not shoot anything. I did some research ahead of time into the area where we were going to be and became fascinated by these geological features they have there called cenotes.
They’re natural sinkholes that connect to subterranean bodies of water. For the Mayans, the cenotes were sources of water and were considered portals to the afterlife. They played an important role in Mayan religion and were often the location of sacrifices and offerings. Today they are frequented by tourists and locals who bathe in the cool water. We drove to several cenotes as each one has a pretty unique character. Some have collapsed ceilings and are totally exposed, others are totally enclosed and lit by artificial lights. The cenote where these photos were made had a single hole in the cave roof.
After hanging out for a little while, I noticed how people were drawn to the light and how they would interact with it. Some were clearly anxious about swimming in the dark water and looking for the security of the sun. Others seemed to seek out its warmth. Some would stare up into the light. Others would float face down, peering into water.
I love Misrach’s On The Beach. I read Nevil Shute’s book when I was about twelve and I remember how much it scared me and made me feel queasy. I feel that same terror and churning in my stomach when I look at Misrach’s photos. Whereas his expanses of sea and sand are overwhelming, I find security in the single shaft of light in my cenote. Misrach’s photos are more like my nightmares, mine are more like my dreams.
So, I went to Mexico with a camera and my girlfriend and came back with some interesting photographs and a fiancée!
Did you used a tripod for these Agua Sagrada shots? sure looks like you would need one… what do you value most in a tripod?
The images were shot on a tripod-mounted 4×5 camera. Shooting large format, I can’t image working without a sturdy, reliable, compact tripod
You’re one of the few documentary photographers I can name who really successfully shoots square (another is Joseph Sywenkyj)… how do you choose your format, and what do you love about a square frame?
Thanks! I love squares (and short, squat rectangles). Squares keep me in line and don’t let me tilt the frame as much when I’m frustrated that the world isn’t organized how I want it to be. Shooting square is kind of like catching butterflies in a net, I just swing the camera around at what I see and push the button. It’s much more reactionary for me than shooting other formats.
Restaurant, Sumqayit beach.
Black Sea, Sukhumi, Abkhazia
I like how your bio says you just fell into photography. Can you elaborate on that? Were you always an adventurous soul, and the camera became a necessity, or do you seek out story once you had the photo bug (chicken/egg scenario)…
I took a photo class in high school. I still have photos I took with titles like “My Left Foot” and “Hand Shadow”. I really liked solarization and reticulation. My grandmother loved the photos.
Years later, after going to culinary school and working as a chef, I found myself at Columbia University as a math and philosophy major. I took a photo class as an elective and fell in love with it. The teacher was incredibly passionate and outspoken. He told me I photographed like a 68 year old dentist from Long Island and I was determined to prove him wrong.
Detroit, February 2009
I began looking at photographs more and more. I looked at Arbus and Winogrand a lot. I began to see that photography was a great tool for making visual Post Its. Philosophy was filling my head with a whole new language to question the world around me and photography gave me a way to record my interactions with the world as I searched for answers.
One of the first places I ever went to take photographs was Haiti. So yes, I think I have an adventurous soul. But, I spent most of my time in Haiti at the hotel because guns and crowds and loud noises freak me out. So I’m part adventurous soul and part neurotic New Yorker. Everywhere I’ve gone, however, has made me learn about myself and helped me grow as a photographer and person.
Your subject matter is quite varied; how do you choose your projects, and what’s coming up in the future?
I choose projects the same way I choose what to have for dinner – whatever sounds good at a given time. For the past few months, I’ve really been into staying close to home. I’ve been working on a project in towns that share names with cities of the world. The photos are about the US while keeping it in a global context. This photo is titled Versailles.
I like to think that I have an active relationship or dialogue with photography. Some days it’s cerebral and logical, other days it’s emotional and passionate and sometimes it’s lighthearted and funny. Every day, however, it takes effort and honesty.
Young refugee and cat. Tskaltubo, Georgia
Women praying at a church in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Land mine victim’s prosthetic leg, Repi, Abkhazia
Are you affiliated with an agency? I’m curious if you rep yourself, why you choose to do so, and what the benefits are.
No agency at the moment. I am interested in finding representation, but as in any relationship it has to be beneficial for all parties involved. I would rather stay single until I find the right fit. I know a lot of photographers who are all about finding an agency right away, but if you aren’t really ready there’s not much an agency can do for you. I know I keep talking about relationships, but I just got engaged and have been reading a lot of wedding magazines, so cut me some slack.
A salt farmer at work on the outskirts of Baku.
A man floats in a mineral bath on the beach near the oil fields of Bibiheybat.
Thanks, James! See more Pomerantzes, here.