Tuesday, February 5, 2008

A conversation with Lou Reed

lou reed

I’ve been lucky or unlucky enough to have had a few run-ins with Lou Reed. Each left me stunned and confused; thinking back years later, they still make me uncomfortable.

The first couple were purely random. One day circa spring 1997, I was about to enter Generation Records on Thompson Street when three leather jackets cut me off at the door: Lou with two younger dudes. Inside, the dudes grabbed a CD began hyping it to Lou, who made the “Oh yeah? I should check that out” face. Only when they handed the disc to the cashier did I see what it was — Pearl Jam’s “Ten.” My heart sank.

A year or so later I was at Film Forum for Orson Welles’s “Touch of Evil.” Just as the lights went down two men slid into the aisle seats beside me, and the one at my right elbow was Mr. Lewis Allen Reed. All I can say is that his acute case of halitosis nearly ruined the movie.

I have interviewed Reed twice. The second time, which I may write about another time, was bar none the worst interview of my career. The first is transcribed here. Reed has become an avid photographer, and he had an exhibition split between a Chelsea gallery and the Hermès store on the Upper East Side. My editor wanted a short Q&A about why Lou-Reed-of-all-people was having a show at Hermès-of-all-places: one notch above Cosmo mentality, but hell yes I took the assignment.

The interview took place on the morning of Jan. 5, 2006, at the Steven Kasher Gallery on 23rd Street. It felt like a disaster, but listening to the tape later I was amused by our peculiar pas de deux. (Answering HIS questions, I got in a Schenectady mention and almost plugged the Sacandaga Dragons, but thought better of it.) And despite his grouchiness and my lame questions it turned out to be an interesting conversation about New York, music, light, and “another kind of beautiful.”

Most of these shots seem to be taken at night or twilight. Why is that?

It’s when the light is good. The natural light. You can just see it. It’s very exciting when the light is right.

How did you get interested in photography? How long have you been doing this?

I’ve been doing this for a really long time now, I guess. I don’t know what long means. I started because of touring. Like I’m sure a lot of people do, if you travel a lot you start taking pictures because of what you’re seeing. And some of what I was seeing I started thinking — gotta take pictures of this, it’s too beautiful.

For documentation?

Just to see it again. You may not be back here. It may not be this way. That’s the thing about light. A certain kind of light seems to be there a very short time — by the time you went and got your camera it could be gone already.

So you carry it along with you?

Well you can’t bring the light back when it’s natural light. That’s that — gone. What do you do at the Times?

I work on the Sunday arts section.

As opposed to the weekly arts section.

Well, every day, actually. But Sunday is kind of the main focus.

And what’s your background?

Journalism, music.

From where?

Upstate New York.



Where? What school?

What school? You mean like high school?

College, whatever.

I went to college at the University of Virginia.

But you’re from upstate.

I’m from upstate.

Cold up there.

It is. It certainly is. So mostly what you were talking about was ...

That’s very funny.

What is?

Cassette. [Points to my tape recorder.]

What’s so funny about cassette? It’s a classic.

It is a classic. Everybody ... that’s how I write songs. ’Cause it has a speaker.

Are you shooting analog or digital?

Oh, I started out analog. But my dream, before digital showed up — My dream was what turned out to be digital. Everything I always wanted was in digital. I know that sounds kind of sacrilegious, but uh ... Yeah.

What was the dream, the immediacy?

Sure. Sure. To see whether you got it and be able to move really swiftly. Not only to try to get it again if you missed it the first time around, but also to change it, adjust it. Like, you don’t have to camp out a week with certain things. You can actually really quickly [inaudible] the better it gets. Really going with the lenses, for instance. It’s so exciting. OK, so I was a big film fan. I fell in love with a certain lens, and I used that lens a lot in my first book.

What was that lens?

Hologon. It’s the Contax Hologon.

What did you like about that lens?

[Exhales.] Oh, it’s like, beautiful engineering, really beautiful, so gorgeous you could wear it as jewelry or something. It’s just incredibly beautiful. No distortion. I would say — you could obviously go and check with whoever — but that’s the best wide-angle lens you can find. Camera, zero.

No distortion?

No vignetting, no distortion. It’s really ... in my first book I show you pictures I took with it. Now if we could ever get digital to go to that level. And now it has, as far as I’m concerned. But you know I used all kinds of ways trying to get information between frames. Keep track of things. I like to keep track of things. Of course, that’s what a computer’s for. But you know, which lens did what at what F-stop ... [Waves hand.] Digital does that — it’s all done. The one thing it won’t tell you is what lens you used. But you think if you do this long enough you ought to be able to ...

What do you think about the way digital —

Have you seen my first book?

I have not.


These are actually the first photos I’ve ever seen of yours.

There you go.

So I’m curious.

It’s hard to talk with somebody about something you haven’t seen or know anything about, isn’t it?

That’s what reporting’s all about sometimes. Walk in —

No research, that’s it.

No research, but —

No preparation.

You can’t know everything.

Well, you can try. Maybe not everything ...

I did try. I wasn’t able to find any pictures in the last day. My apologies.

[Calls to somebody in the gallery for his book.] Just because we were talking about that lens. It’s like, I can’t describe the lens. You know what a lens does, but I’ll show you what it does. It’s like talking about music when you talk about visuals, it’s like ... it’s just really, really hard. But this lens, I just ... If a man can love a lens, [knocks table] this is an example of it.

Did you use that lens for these pictures?

You can’t.

So these are strictly digital pictures.

[Pointing to walls.] All of these are strictly analog pictures. [Looking at book.] This is the first book. The idea was a piggyback book, so you could travel with one, and then the other could sit on the table, and this that and the other. I thought after people saw that everybody would do it, but that’s not what happened. [Leafing through book.] Look at that. Mmm.

So there are a lot of abstractions here.

Ah, this is. [Still looking through book.]

What’s that?

The Village. That’s Sheridan Square.

So these were taken on rooftops.

Yeah. You can almost kill yourself doing this sometimes.

What about these, where did you take these?

Same. Different rooftops. Or down on the river.

I understand a lot of them were taken from your apartment window?

No. [Laughs.] I like roofs, fire escapes, hanging out widows, stuff like that. I like the way things look through a lens. Well, certain kind of lenses, put it that way.

So if someone was to say theres going to be a photography show called “Lou Reed’s New York” —

Well there is.

— I might expect images of people, of music people or art people. But these are almost nature photography. The city as nature.

Yeah, exactly. This is a part of — you know it’s funny ’cause, um — It’s water and light. I was thinking about this, actually. We’re an island. You forget we’re an island. And I like that. There’s this whole other thing to New York. It’s very, very beautiful. It’s especially stuff that I keep seeing and say, ‘My God, look that this.’ Every single fucking night. Or dusk or dawn, take your pick. And sometimes during the day, when the light hits. When the natural light hits. And you’ve got X space — because it’s changing, it’s shifting right in front of you. It’s so overwhelmingly beautiful, I’m just agape.

There are a lot of sunsets here. Are these digitally altered?

Oh no, no! Oh no, I really. No, these are not Photoshopped. These are — no.

’Cause there are some amazing magentas and ...

No, no, that’s why I was — [Laughs.] That’s why I was taking pictures. I really hope people don’t think I’m standing there with, like, a coloring book.

Well, some of the colors are just so amazing that —

They are.

— that it is easy to forget that in this city of buildings that there are just beautiful sunsets right there.

It’s really there. If you don’t believe me you go down to the Hudson River, watch what happens, in between, well, right now. Last week there was one that was so astonishing. The book’s done but it just can’t stop doing this. You just go, ‘My God, who’s doing this light show?’ There was one I’d never seen before. It was like a huge tidal wave of a cloud. And if you just looked at it you could think it’s a tidal wave, not a cloud. God.

And then you’ve got abstractions like this, that it seems like the light is mainly coming from buildings and artificial light. Which is the other aspect of sort of light at night in the city.

It is light at night in the city. That’s exactly what it is. And it’s for me another kind of beautiful.

The other kind is the natural kind?

Yeah. Well, natural light, and then man-made light. You know, when you’re looking at the Empire State or the Chrysler. But then you can do more than just that. And in particular if you’re looking at it through a camera. Looking through a camera is like having your own screening room. I just go mad in there. I like the viewfinder. I like living in the viewfinder. It’s astonishing what you can see through it. Trying just to catch that.

So you said that when you started you were mainly capturing things on your travels.

Yeah. Zipping around.

But this is all New York. All these all recent pictures.

These are the last two years. Two years, three years.

Has New York always been a photographic subject, or is it only more recently?

Started out all over the place. And then it just settled into, ‘Wow, it’s pretty amazing over there.’ But then it’s like, ‘Look at that sky in Africa.’ ‘Whoa, look at the sky on the Hudson.’ I mean, I haven’t even gone over to the FDR. Which, you know, you go to BAM, any time you go over the bridge, it’s just, you know, you could just do that. [Skidding chair back.] It’s so beautiful again.

Would you have to get up early to go see the sunrise over the East River?

I can’t sleep anyways, so it doesn’t matter. But it’s like, when it’s, like, 7. Looking at the East River on either side of the bridge.

In the morning?

At night. Just before it’s pure night light. Just before. There’s a moment. You can tell in a minute, in a second. It just goes away so quickly. You always have to be there before. Or else by the time you’re set up it’s not there anymore.

Do you ever do portraits?

Yeah. [Points to self-portrait.]

I mean of other people.

Oh yeah. Usually just friends. Just for fun, playing with the natural light and their features. I just did a cover for Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine. It was a cover because I understand that stuff, so it was easy for me to take a picture that caught what they were all about.

People doing tai chi?

Uh, a thing called chin na.

What’s that?

Grabs and locks. So, if you’re going to take a picture of it, it would probably help if you knew what was the power point or something as opposed to when ... when they’re looking good and they have their power up as opposed to missing that. It would be a big advantage if you’re going to photograph a baseball game if you knew something about baseball, probably.

What about the city of New York?

I think beautiful is beautiful. Beautiful Paris, beautiful this, beautiful that, beautiful Africa, beautiful Australia. It’s the light.

But do you think you know New York better than a Parisian would know New York?

Let me tell you, some of the Parisians know New York better than we know New York. I’ve had Parisians take me around to these ... [Laughs.] It’s astonishing. The French are really serious about knowing New York. I understand light. And light is anywhere. I’m not talking about going to secret places. When I’m touring, hey, I’ve got a room with a view or something — ‘That’s pretty cool, look at this architecture in Kyoto.’ But having said that, in the end it’s the light. Without the light, it doesn’t much matter. That goes for portraits. That’s why people spend hours and hours and hours setting up the light. Of course if you had natural light ... that’s why they call it natural. Natural as in organic. [Laughs.]

As opposed to what other form of natural?

Oh you know, trying to ... phony natural light. You know, some of the photographers aren’t like ... make really more high contrast — change things with the camera so it’s not just this dead thing.

What do you do with the camera?

What do you mean?

Do you sort of play with it to get the light you want?

Yeah. Also, be able to record the thing that’s there correctly. Make it come in up as least as good as it really is, maybe see if we can make it a little better. By focus.

Do you have photographic routines? Walks you go on?


Particular places you want to be?


It is a matter of being surprised?

I know where I’m going. Sometimes I go out, you know, especially with some of the lenses lately. because I know where the stuff’s going to be. What I’m interested in. Which is the light, and some of these lenses. So yeah, I’m in control of everything.

The irony is that a lot of these are shots of New Jersey, of course.

Looking across the river, sure.

The New Yorker’s best view is often of New Jersey.

Yeah. It’s a staggering view. For instance, that’s not New Jersey.

What is it?

That’s looking down toward Battery Park, I think.

Yeah, is that the World Financial Center?

It better be. And it’s ours. Statue of Liberty is over there. Well, there’s a lot of detail in that, if you ever get ambitious. These aren’t altered. Some things are put together for fun, but not that one, that’s straight.

So except for that picture of you ...

These aren’t the real sizes. Some of this..

Oh, I know they’re gong to be much larger.

It’s like if I gave you the Statue of Liberty this big, you know. Kind of misses it.

You talked about peering through the viewfinder, when it is very tiny.

But that’s me. It’s like a movie theater.

So except for that picture I didn’t see any people in these pictures. Do you think it’s easier to shoot the city without people in the frame?

What I was interested in this time around. You can do a lot of things. You can’t do everything at once. This was the city and not the people, not the people in the city.

There are some shots in here, like the clouds, could be anywhere, but somehow they look like New York clouds to me.

And they are. But you have only my word.

What makes them New York clouds?

That I took them here. That’s all. I had thought after my first book — Africa, that was pretty amazing — and the sky in Mexico and Spain is pretty amazing — but I hadn’t really paid attention to the sky here. I wanted to see if I could get the sky here as well as I have the sky there. And then it’s just every day. I’ve been doing this every day for two or three years. This is the result of that. But every day, looking at that.

So this show will open simultaneously here and at Hermès uptown, right?

They’re not exactly the same show. The more river-oriented ones are here, the more abstract light-oriented ones are over there, I think.

Why is that?

I don’t know. It just seemed like a natural division. Plus there’s only so much wall space you can hang something effectively. You know, these aren’t postage stamps or postcards.

Why Hermès?

Because the owner of Hermès is a big fine-art photography fan. Turns out he owns — when Leica were going under he bought stock in them to keep them going. He devotes the top floor of various Hermès shops to photography. That’s it. And I went over there and they had a Ralph Gibson show on the top floor of Hermès of all places. So I thought, ‘Wow!’ And then they asked me would I like to do it. I mean, you don’t get paid or anything. You don’t get a free Hermès scarf either.

Does it say anything about New York that Lou Reed has a show at Hermès?

It’s part of the charm of the city that you can be in two places at once. What I was interested in was having more people have the opportunity to see the photographs. And the person who’s in charge of Hermès loves photography and loves being able to show photographs and photographers. So I think the impulses are all correct.

Do you like their scarves?

No, I don’t own one thing from Hermès because I can’t afford it. Maybe you can. But I just told you no money changes hands. But I don’t want to have to make excuses about why are you showing something at a store on the Upper East Side? That would be really boring to have to go through that. I’m just interested in showing these pictures of this city in a nice setting. [Note: this quote was pretty much the money shot for the assigned fish-out-of-water Q&A.]

A nice setting.

One would hope. It’s not just taking a photo and printing it. There’s a real art to the book. I’m working with a printer named Gerhard Steidl. You should look at the book. He’s an amazing — what great fun. I can’t imagine more fun. [A few seconds garbled here.]

Do you have a particular inspiration or teacher in photography?



Like everything else.

There’s one picture over there that I noticed, “DA Resurrection,” which I thought was an interesting title.


I figured that was a code of some kind, but it was “Resurrection.” That’s not a title?

The DA is a designation, and TIF is TIF. As opposed to raw. But “Resurrection” is the title.

And what does the title mean?

That’s the picture. If I could explain that I wouldn’t need the picture. I just looked at that and that word was just blazing in neon. I don’t know why. There’s something about it, it made me ... the longer I look at it, just looked like literally, the resurrection in abstract to me.

Because most of them have titles like “Cloud.”

No no no no no no no no. Those are not titles. Those are just designated things. The real titles are coming in today. I’ve been working on the titles for a while now. Believe me, there’s nothing quote “Cloud.” Please. They should black that shit out. Like that one is called “Nebula,” for instance, the second from the left on the bottom. And the one is next to it is “Fly Me to the Moon” or something like that.

I [don’t?] want to show you things you haven’t seen either. It’s not just this is what was there. It’s this was what was there and this is what I see, sometimes maybe you would like that too. Or maybe not. Whatever. Just trying.

Is it difficult get an aspect of New York that hasn’t been gotten? Surely a lot of these things have been photographed trillions of times.

In black and white certainly they have, and there’s ads all over the place, but I haven’t seen anything that’s remotely like this. So for me the field is wide open because there’s this whole other way of looking at it that is to me — I’m not a photography expert by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just — this is my work, and I haven’t seen anything that looks like this. I know from looking at photographs that some things have been done to death, especially in the black-and-white world.

Snow in Central Park ...

The homeless people and the carriage in the park ... I don’t think anything comes close to what this is. This is taking advantage of these lenses and these things that are going on technically. I really, really, really like what’s going on. To me this is one of the most exciting times to be around photography that’s conceivable.

[Interview goes on for a little while. To be completed.]

Download an alternate take of “I’m Waiting for the Man” from the Velvet Underground’s 1966 Scepter Sessions acetate.

Earlier: A conversation with M.I.A.


Anonymous said...


Incredibly interesting read... though he does seem like a complete dickhead to talk to. I can only imagine what the second interview must have been like.

Anonymous said...

you're a very patient man, ben. this is amazing