This interview series is produced in partnership with MATTE Magazine, a publication produced by writer and curator Matthew Leifheit that focuses on the work of a single photographer per issue.
Neil Winokur is an important photographer. His images of East Village artists, dogs, and pop still lifes have been widely collected by museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the George Eastman House, and the Museum of Modern Art (where his wife, Anne Umland, works as a curator in the painting and sculpture departments). He shows at Janet Borden Gallery, one of the oldest galleries for contemporary photography in New York. But I’d never heard of him until the Voice’s Vince Aletti mentioned him to me (he’d profiled Winokur early in his career for the Voice). With such a compelling laundry list of attributes, I wondered: Why had I never heard of him before?
I started digging. The more I found out about Winokur, the more I realized his vivid, deadpan sensibility bears a striking resemblance to the current epidemic of poppy still lifes. Contemporary art photographers like Elad Lassry, Lucas Blalock, Bobby Doherty, and Annette Kelm all seem to have been influenced by Neil Winokur’s pictures, whether they know it or not. And yet, almost none of Winokur’s work is available online.
You can, however, find Winokur himself in New York City, where he’s been working on and off for over four decades as a book buyer at the Strand Bookstore.
Your work is in MoMA’s collection. You’re in a lot of museum collections.
Not as many as you would think. It’s weird—I’m in a lot of private collections. Many people have commissioned my work. A lot of people who want to buy a Neil Winokur photo will commission a portrait of their dog. I have done lots and lots of dogs. At one point, everybody I knew had a dog. They had dogs instead of children, dogs instead of boyfriends. This was the late ‘80s. I thought, maybe I should just do a show of photographs of dogs. So I did. Since then I’ve done a zillion dog commissions. Dogs are actually better at being photographed than people.
Have you had problems photographing people? You told the New York Times that you preferred still lifes as subjects because they don’t complain. [Since the eighties, Winokur has steadily transitioned from portraits to still lifes.]
When people were going out to clubs, they would stop by my apartment first. They would be all dressed up and it would be a fun thing. Those people didn’t care that all their pores were showing, because they were like 18, 19, 25 years old. They were young and they looked good. But when I started to photograph older people they didn’t really like seeing themselves close-up. When I photographed Andy Warhol he held up the photo in front of him and started asking, “Ew, look, what’s that? What’s that on my face?” I don’t know why he was worried about a couple of red spots. I mean, he was not a very good looking man, but he was Andy Warhol, so it didn’t matter. But people never complained about their dog’s photos, or the objects.
I started doing single portraits, but these portraits didn’t tell anything about anybody. So I decided to do portraits of people surrounded by their favorite objects. I did a portrait of Chuck Close this way.
The first thing I brought around to galleries were my portraits. But people didn’t understand them. I got my idea from Hollywood glamor portraits.
Janet Borden represented me before she had a gallery. She was selling photos out of her living room. Robert Miller liked them, but Robert Mapplethorpe did not like the idea of another artist showing portraits at his gallery. Which is weird because I went to high school with Robert. I didn’t know him in high school, but I knew him afterwards. I used to live with this woman Janet Hamill who was Patti’s best friend in college. So I met Robert and Patti through her. I actually did a little printing for Robert when he started doing photographs.
Your prints are Cibachromes, right? [Cibachrome is a nearly extinct photographic process. It is the most stable chemical way of printing a picture. It also means that the surface of these photographs is not only the slickest gloss you’ve ever seen, but it has a flecktone quality. Imagine the picture above printed life-size with light refracting through the surface of the color.]
Cibachrome is very plastic. I always say it’s like acrylic as opposed to oil paint. It’s almost like a metallic color, and it’s very shiny.
So you’re concerned with the surface of your photographs as objects. I think a lot of photographers now don’t care about the physical object, it’s all about displaying it on the web.
Yes, and a lot of people think in terms of books, too. For books and the Internet, there’s no reason to use a big camera. You don’t need the kind of clarity and sharpness when you’re not making big prints.
When people like Andreas Gursky started making huge photos I liked them a lot. But as they did them more and more I started to see too many pixels. That’s why I use a 4 x 5 large format camera, because I like the smooth surface you’re talking about.
That’s what I mean! The majority of your work is not available online. There’s a still-life zeitgeist happening in photography right now, especially online but also in galleries and museums. Do you know Elad Lassry’s work?
No, I don’t.
It’s very easy to do still-life photography. It’s so controlled. I used to take pictures on the street. This was a long time ago on the Lower East Side, and I got tired of people trying to steal my camera. So that’s why I started doing studio photography.
I was influenced by Andy Warhol: the bright colors, the pop, the deadpan. He said everybody has 15 minutes of fame. I do still lifes because I thought these objects should get theirs. I try to photograph objects that are archetypal, objects that have a meaning to society beyond themselves. An American flag, a glass of water. I did a toilet and it sold out almost immediately.
I am working in the tradition of Paul Outerbridge. I love his color photos. There’s nothing like them, and there never will be. But he also did black and white photos for advertising, and they are beautiful too. Like a collar of a shirt. I did a piece called “Homage to Outerbridge,” like 40 small objects. Alvin Hall bought the whole piece and installed it around a room.
I did a show right after my friend Bill Jacobsen died of AIDS [note: this is not the famous photographer by the same name whose early work dealt with AIDS]. There are all these images around like dildos and condoms. Around the whole top of the gallery, I did all these photos of candles on a red background. There were some black and white pictures of people I know who died from aids, like Peter Hujar.
You knew Peter Hujar? I just interviewed Stephen Koch who owns his archive.
I knew Peter later on. I knew David Wojnarowicz too. It was all the same scene, they were always around.
There were all these people around who died suddenly, and many of them have since come to be regarded as almost mythical figures.
It’s like a candle blowing out.
Where can I see the photographs from this show? These pictures are not available online.
I have slides of them. I was thinking of throwing them away but I think I didn’t.
I don’t think you should throw them away.
[All images copyright Neil Winokur, courtesy Janet Borden, Inc. NYC]