Permanent Outsider: Interview with Luc Sante

One of photography’s most eloquent contemporary commentators, writer and essayist Luc Sante chats to Art South Africa about Congo, Tintin, dancehalls and looking at the subject’s eyes

Luc Sante, reading at All Tomorrow’s Parties, Monticello, September 5, 2010. Photo: Sean O’Toole

The name Luc Sante
is rarely mentioned by South African photography writers. Perhaps it is because he is a committed generalist: Sante writes
with equal conviction about rap impresario Suge Knight and science fiction
writer HP Lovecraft, as he does photographers Walker Evans or Robert
Mapplethorpe.

“I won’t pretend to specialise or present myself as an expert in anything,” offers Sante, a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and visiting professor of writing and photography at Bard College, by way of an introduction on his occasional blog, Pinakothek. “Subjectivity is my middle name, a trick memory is my pack mule, and self-contradiction is my trusty old jackknife. Generally I favour
humble over great, marginal over central, old over new — but not always,
because like a four-sided porch I’m open to all winds.”
Born in Verviers, Belgium, Sante emigrated to the United States with his family in the 1960s. He first came to wider prominence as a writer with the publication of Low Life (1991), a chronicle of the hustlers, conmen and petty criminals inhabiting New York’s Lower East Side circa 1840-1920. The book played a significant role in igniting his interest in historical photographs, especially anonymous found photography. In this vein, last year Sante published Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard, 1905-1930, a book that traces its origins to a 1980 encounter with a street peddler selling postcards rescued from a rubbish bin.

Following on from an initial conversation at All Tomorrow’s Parties (September 3-5), a music festival in upstate New York, Sante agreed to an email interview. The following is a lightly edited transcript.
Luc Sante, Kill All Your Darlings: Pieces 1990-2005

ASA: A contextual question to start, one that speculatively lingers on your Belgian origins. If my math is correct, you were six years old when, in May 1960, the Belgium Congo gained independence. To what extent did the far goings on in middle Africa feature in your family’s daily
narrative, if at all?

LS: The Congo was part of the reality of every Belgian, although no one
had a grasp of what truly went on there. (It took an American, Adam
Hochschild, to lay out the facts in his book King Leopold’s Ghost, 1999, a bombshell when it
was translated.) As a child I thought the Congo was the place depicted in
Tintin in the Congo, a place where smiling natives, repentant former cannibals,
gratefully accepted a gentle course in civilization administered by the White
Fathers (the Catholic order by that name, but I guess also the metaphorical
extension). My uncle, my mother’s elder brother, lived and worked there from
1944 to 1959 or so, and he brought us trinkets. He was also a drunk who feuded
with my mother for decades, so I never heard any details from his mouth.
Belgium sent its drunks and antisocial types to the Congo, and most if not all
of its jobless and its fortune-seekers. When my parents decided to emigrate to the US instead, in 1959, we were thought eccentric. Why go all the way over
there when you could get a high paying job with full benefits and three months
off in Belgium every year, by simply signing up for the Congo? And then when
the Congo gained its independence, my pious and ignorant mother was distressed
(I don’t think my more cosmopolitan father was), and she took out her
resentment on the correspondents on American TV, whom she would rail at and
curse. The Congo (and the then Ruanda-Urundi) was Belgium’s vastly
disproportionate empire, the focus of its speculation and erotic reverie and
exploitation and charity. It also sort of made Belgians feel as though they
lived in a real country, a fantasy they haven’t been able to entertain since.
ASA: Were you ever curious about visiting the Congo? Have you in fact visited? How about elsewhere in Africa?

LS: I’ve always been curious about visiting, but the opportunity has never arisen, sadly. The only part of Africa I’ve been to is
Morocco. Ah, but someday!
ASA: When you moved with your family to the US, was is difficult ‘becoming American’? Or do you feel you are still becoming American?
LS: When I was a child I did engage in an arduous struggle to pass: learning English, getting rid of my accent, becoming
conversant with the culture in all its large and small aspects. But then, in
adolescence, a funny thing happened: I realised that although I was fascinated
with America, its history and culture, I was not interested in becoming
American. And so I never have, although I can pass pretty much undetectably. I
still carry a Belgian passport — although I truly do not feel anything but
vestigially Belgian. The US remains an object of fascination for me, and the
subject of much study, but while many of my friends etc. are American and I
have no plans at present to move elsewhere, I consider myself a permanent
outsider.

ASA: Fast-forwarding some, in one of the pieces you read at ATP you described going to a Jamaican dancehall club in early 1980s New York. “Riddim,” you repeatedly stated. I thought (briefly) of Dick Hebdige and his writings about proximity and influence amongst England’s various racially defined postwar subcultures. How did your early encounters with difference — particularly racial difference, like in the dancehalls — influence your later
writings, especially about New York?

LS: Race is and was a primary aspect of my life in New York and my thinking about it. I went there to live and attend college in 1972, a hinge between the 1960s and 70s, between white flight and the civil-rights struggle and the failed dream of revolution on the one side, and quietude and bankruptcy and entropy on the other. I went to Columbia University, which
fronted Harlem on two sides, and my best friend (met my first week there, and
still my best friend today), was a middle-class African-American from Indiana,
who introduced me to every aspect of black culture; together we spent a lot of
time in Harlem. After college, pretty much every neighbourhood I lived in was
primarily Dominican — that is, multiracial Hispanic Caribbean (my shame is that
I never learned Spanish). And of course I enjoyed the nightlife of all races.
But New York in the 1970s was a much blacker city than today, when money has
trumped everything. Anyway, having passed through the immigrant experience, and
learning to speak English in school, and all the mockery and marginalization
those things entailed, I never felt like a part of the dominant culture, so
that African Americans never seemed more other than white Americans to me.
Luc Sante, Walker Evans (Phaidon 55’s)

ASA: In a 1998 New York Review of Books piece on Walker Evans, you wrote of his 1930s pictures that they “are so rigorously plain, you might think that he just got lucky, happened to be there with a lens and a shutter, as if anybody remotely awake in that place at that time could have done the same”. In certain respects, the same could be said of the masterful South African photographer
David Goldblatt. Like Evans, he too strives to vacuum “the messages and
sentiments and aphorisms” that hazard the documentary image locally. Enough
prefacing. Have you seen his work? Have you looked at it any great detail? Any
thoughts?
LS: I have seen and admired David Goldblatt’s work, but I must admit that I haven’t spent enough time with it to confidently write about it. I’ll try to rectify that.

ASA: Walker Evans is dead, which might nullify some of what I am about to ask. Still, do you find it useful and informative chatting with photographers about what they do, or do you prefer responding to the
image. Another way of phrasing this is, do you find meeting photographers has
enriched or lessened your appreciation and/or understanding of their practice?
LS: No. Although I count a number of photographers among my friends, and enjoy meeting photographers in general, I prefer to engage with the image by itself. In fact it’s no accident that both my books on photography have focused on works by unknown or little-known photographers. I confess I prefer to engage with pictures which I’ve chosen myself out of the welter of unidentified pictures, without the intrusion of too much personal context — Ilike to be a detective, and dislike being an impresario. I also prefer pictures taken 75 or more years ago, in part for related reasons.

ASA: During the run of Okwui Enwezor’s exhibition Archive Fever at the ICP, you participated in an exchange with Christian Boltanski. “I’m not sure I care so much about archives,” Boltanski cheekily remarked early on. “The more you preserve something, the less you are alive,” he stated not long after. There followed an awkward silence. “With photography, each time you try to catch a life, you kill it” — Boltanski again. At ATP, when I asked you a question about photography, you invoked the word “ghost” at one point. Why, when we speak
about photography, do our similes and metaphors often tend towards violence,
death and the afterlife? Is photography necessarily a morbid profession? Or,
rather, is it a comment on how we verbally rationalise the visually elusive?
LS: Photography is “the perfect medium” — the title of a show on the relationship between photography and the occult that ran a few years ago at the Metropolitan Museum. It preserves the images of the living after their deaths, and it also captures the ephemeral and fixes it — at least in theory — forever. Thus it is inevitably experienced as a haunting. The argument is a bit long to summarize, but I’d refer you to my book Evidence (1992) and Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida.
On the other hand, I’m not sure I entirely agree with Boltanski here — and just possibly he doesn’t either; he’s
a bit of a prankster and a provocateur, and was maybe amping up his response a
bit to stir things up. It’s the old chestnut about “savages” fearing that
images would serially peel off their souls — something that Balzac apparently
believed, actually, and a superstition that in the west can be traced back at
least to Lucretius’s notion that sight involved a kind of ectoplasmic skin
being physically transmitted from the object to the eye. Of course, we all know
how intrusive and sometimes destructive photography can be as an action.

Unknown Weegee, which features an essay by Sante
ASA: It is interesting what you say photography being intrusive and sometimes destructive. In South Africa, where race and power are dominant themes in our cultural discourse, photographers like Roger Ballen and Pieter Hugo receive a lot of shtick for what they do, sometimes unfairly. As a writer and critic, how do you engage the twin vectors of ethics and political
correctness when looking at photographs?

LS: I try to take pictures on their own terms, considering the historical and social context from which they emerge. I also spend a lot of time looking at the eyes of the subjects. You can tell a lot from them about the relationship between photographer and subject. At one end of the scale is Lewis Hine, who almost palpably honoured his subjects and gave
them courage; at the other end is the indifference of most official
photography. A particularly interesting laboratory is the mug shot: along its
130-odd-year history lies every sort of relationship, from sympathy and
generosity to indifference and contempt to outright cruelty, and you can see
all those things reflected within the confines of a very constrained genre.
ASA: When we chatted at ATP, you said there are very few good photography writers about, people who don’t lean on the Zimmer frame of academic discourse. I’m improvising a bit on how you phrased things. Who was the first writer on photography who made you admiringly say ‘gee whizz’?

LS: The list is very small: Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Gisele Freund, John Berger. In recent times Michael Lesy’s later work, Rebecca Solnit on Muybridge, and Geoff Dyer’s extraordinary The Ongoing Moment, which is the book I would put in anyone’s hand who asked for a work vibrantly true to
both photography and writing.
ASA: I want to focus on your interest in photography. A photographer friend, Jo Ractliffe, and I once did a Nick Hornby (ala High Fidelity) and each listed our five seminal photographs. It took Jo nearly a week. Three years later I have only managed an unreliable top five; like the pop charts, it keeps changing. What is the Sante top five circa now?
LS: Okay, I’ll do a quickie:

A. Walker Evans: Penny Pictures.
B. Henri Cartier-Bresson: the one taken in Mexico showing a man (head not
shown) crossing his arms, perhaps in agony, over his bare chest while next to
him stands a stack of cubbyholes holding women’s shoes.
C. Robert Frank: funeral I think in the Mississippi Delta, one of the mourners
with his fingers to his mouth, all the mourners in black suits and hats.
D. Danny Lyon: motorcyclist looking back while crossing bridge.
E. Manuel Alvarez Bravo: drinkers in a pulqueria open to the street, their
heads obscured by shadow, their backs in broad sunlight.

These are all formative images I encountered in my youth, before I ever
suspected I’d one day write about photography. I had recently given up on
becoming an artist or photographer myself, and was using photography for
inspiration in writing poetry and fiction.