David Newsom is an actor and photographer based out of Los Angeles. Born in New Jersey, he studied film and art history at Ithaca College before heading west in 1990. He currently lives with his girlfriend, writer/director Siân Heder, and his dog Burt. For info about his book Skip and upcoming shows, he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Thwaite: Before I ask anything specific about your lovely book, Skip, I want to ask you how long you'd been taking photographs for? Do you do this professionally, as your day-job?
David Newsom: Photography is an obsession/habit. For the last 17 years or so, I have been largely able to make my living in the film and TV industry, a life which lends itself to vast tracts of downtime. So, when I’m either bored on a set or traveling, the camera has become my most reliable means of interacting creatively with my surroundings. While it’s often said that cameras distance us from the present, I find the total opposite, that looking through the camera stitches me into my surroundings and makes me acutely aware of the world. Over time, my eye evolved, and the stories I saw and wanted to tell became more specific.
MT: Skip is published by Perceval Press founded, as most folk will know, by Viggo Mortensen. Most small presses are fairly anonymous concerns. Has Viggo's fame changed the process of being published by a small press for you?
DN: There can be little doubt that Viggo’s fame generates more interest for Perceval than they might otherwise enjoy, but it’s also become clear to me that Perceval has a great deal of respect among dealers of fine art & fine art books as well as of dissident writers. Perceval’s authors are respected by their peers, and in art and politics, that’s no small claim. Viggo himself is a man possessed of both great creative integrity and strong, lucid political conviction. That he has used the fruits of his success as an actor to found Perceval is an extremely rare sort of endeavor but absolutely true to the man himself. There’s a paradoxical quality to Viggo - he’s a fiercely individual entity with an enviable creative output, but he simultaneously possesses a strong sense of community responsibility. I think Perceval is just one manifestation of that drive to illuminate work by others that might go unnoticed. It’s a very, very positive quality, in my opinion.
MT: How is Viggo!?
DN: My relationship with him is strictly creative and editorial. He’s my publisher and editor for Skip so I can only speak to that reality. As an editor, he’s exceptionally good. While always holding to his vow to be collaborative, he nevertheless pored over the text of Skip with me, and he had a strong hand in shaping some 56 years of family history into a few spare, but I think powerful pages.
MT: So, tell us a little about your elder brother - and subject of your book - Skip.
DN: Skip, born Lloyd Curtis Newsom, was the first born of 5 kids, to my parents, Joan & Buck Newsom, in 1948. As the book details, by the time he was one or so, it was clear he had a learning disability. My parents were never sure of it’s nature, but the suspected culprit is oxygen deprivation at birth. Long story short, those were dark times for both my parents- young and just starting out after World War II - and for care of the mentally ill and disabled. They tried to keep him at home for as long as possible, but as my sister grew up, Skip’s unpredictability and hyperactivity proved overwhelming. So he was moved to a state run facility in southern New Jersey and he spent the better part of his young life there. Without going into too much detail, Skip’s life in the facility was terrible. It wasn't until years later that the truth of his and other’s abuse was made known, and no doubt everyone did the best they could, but 17 years later, after my parents separated and my dad moved out, Skipper came back home to live. Eventually, after mom’s death, he came to live in a small rural town 3000 miles from his home state of New Jersey, and that’s what the book is sort of about ...
Skip is a book which tells the story, images and words, of both my brother’s arrival in 2001 to the town of Driggs, Idaho, and the land that embraces him. Primarily a photography book, it’s also a sort of poem about a family’s dissolution and reintegration via nature and landscape.
MT: Why did you want to tell his story? Why did you want to tell it, primarily, via photographs?
DN: First of all, most simply, I am fascinated with the landscape and him in it, and I’m incapable of not shooting him when we’re out, taking walks, crisscrossing my family’s land. As far as why I’d want to tell Skipper’s story, it’s really very simple: the book Skip is really a book about “place”. It’s a myth about family, belonging and the endless quest for “home”. The common thread through all of my work is the search for, or meditation upon, a sense of place. And so, really, Skip isn’t just about Skipper, it’s about being home, being a stranger, being lost and, of course, being found. My family broke apart when I was young, and throughout my lifetime there was always this notion hanging over us, at least from my point of view, that we need to somehow come back together, to mend. And so Skipper’s arrival in 2001 to the town my brother and sister had migrated to years ago had a kind of completeness to it.
However, When I was first approached by Viggo, it was just to do a book of photographs based on a show of my work that he’d seen in late 2004. When we met to discuss the book, I brought along the images of Skipper that I’d been shooting on and off for a decade, simply because I think they are striking, evocative images, and because I suspected Viggo and Perceval might like them as well. But these images were at that point in and amongst several hundred others; we were not strictly focusing on them at all. When Viggo saw them, we scrapped the earlier plan for the book and began shaping it around those images and my landscape work in Idaho. I was incredibly excited by this, because this had been a plan for a show I’d been in one year earlier, but for one reason or another failed to pull off. So, inadvertently- or not- Viggo struck upon this idea that had been percolating around in my head for a while, and Skip was born.
MT: Your brother has what, in the UK, we call special needs. Are you just trying to tell Skip's story or do you have a wider design? Are you trying to say something about a common humanity or a common dignity?
DN: Certainly one thing is clear, that the survival of my brother, due in no small part to a kind of perseverance unusual to people of my parents day and in their situation, has been a healing force for the family.
But also, what organically became the objective of the book, other than to be beautiful and evocative, was a desire to make something so intimate and specific kind of epic and, well, mythological. I think that we’re all looking for signs of meaning, of a path or a plan, either in nature, or, well, NATURE. In this case, Idaho has become the setting for evidence of this meaning - an austere, beautiful tableau where the stranger finds “home”.
Skip also deals with a very complicated version of nature. For example: I am obsessed with the milk thistle and other “weeds’ of the west. Milk thistle is an extraordinarily exotic plant with an undeniably bizarre and captivating silhouette but it also happens to be a non-native, invasive species which can kill cattle if they eat it, and over-run a field within a year. Now, what can we do? Does it belong? Who brought it to the Teton Valley? We did. And by definition, who’s the most successful weed-species of all? Coyote? Nope. Crow? No. Mankind. We are. We have proven to have the ability to exist in a greater diversity of regions than just about any other organism. So there’s a kind of kinship implied in Skip as well with the less beautiful, more resilient manifestations of nature at the beginning of the 21st century. We’re all caught up in the act of survival, and in Skip survival represents nature as much as, say, ecosystem or indigenous species (I hope that makes one iota of sense).
MT: Your quite beautiful photographs are saturated with colour - and melancholy. How do you do that!?
DN: First of all, thanks, Mark. I’m truly glad that you and others tap into them. Second, the melancholy is just me seeping through. Someone once said the great glue of humanity is sadness. I don’t mean to be maudlin, but perhaps it’s true in that at some point, we all become aware of our death, of what we’ll never be, what we’ll never know, etc. So I can’t deny that those feelings arise between me and my subjects, but of course the flip of that is always great love and compassion for it all, an awareness that the ephemeral is sweet. Also, when everything comes together, I am always energized by the sense of spirit which pervades the scene. I have no other way to explain it, but when the subject and the light are in cahoots, there is something “other” informing the moment. Call it spirit, call it coffee, call it what you will.
As for “how I do it”, there’s no short answer to that. I shoot what moves me- this is the most critical fact. I used to think myself out of a lot of shots because I knew they weren’t edgy or moderns enough, but I got over that. Now, I’m a slave only to what moves me. If it doesn’t get me fired up, it’s not worth it. Period.
Technically, I use both 35mm and medium format cameras, and I have learned to shoot with idiosyncratic, often bad toy cameras. I’m constantly in the process of finding new ways to have my print give the viewer my emotional experience at the time I took the shot. The digital workspace makes this far easier than the darkroom did, and of course allows you to do what no dark room could. But having said that, I don’t really add or subtract too much. Mostly, I wait until the light is doing what I need it to do and shoot. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that Hugh, Anna and Danny at Digital Fusion here in Culver City, CA have been very instrumental in coaxing out all that’s in my images. After years of working alone, I’m really enjoying collaborating on my work.
MT: Your embed Skip in the environment, first of the New Jersey ranch of your childhood and later underneath the infinite sky of Idaho. Are you saying Skipper, too, is a force of nature? Or just, too, a natural part of that landscape?
DN: Man is always at odds with environment- neither fully in balance with it, nor able to live beyond it. Even the most environmentally attuned, self-reliant loner lives at best in a tenuous relationship to the land. We are all strangers here. Skipper, as he is represented in Skip, is a stranger fitting in best he can. In that struggle, he is both universal and beautiful, I think. That he is photogenic is just a plus.
MT: You photograph thistles, a weed, growing voraciously and destructively all over the mid-West - what are you getting at with this visual metaphor?
DN: Idaho is part of that great undefined “WEST” we hold so dear in American mythology, though no one can say where The West ends and the west takes over. Is California part of The West? Well, it’s debatable. After what Hollywood did to The West in “Brokeback Mountain”, I suspect we’re permanently thrown out of Dick Cheney & George W. Bush’s West, that’s for sure.
As for what I’m getting at with the loving depiction of the thistles, without wanting to hammer it on the head too much: at the beginning of the 21st Century, what is nature? What is natural? What belongs? Is it simply the act of surviving which justifies any species existence? Is this what Darwin expected? I could carry this dialogue across arenas, say, into the religious and political, but I won’t. All my little visual meditations in the book ponder is the question I already asked: what is nature? The thistles are pests, but so are we. And, they are quite beautiful.
MT: How is Skip today? Has he had his sixtieth birthday yet?
DN: Skipper is a few years short of his 60th - a stunning fact. You have to realize that to us, he’s just a little kid, timeless, fixed in place. Though he’s certainly come a long way in his lifetime, Skip remains very childlike, and as he nears 60, he seems a little like Dorian Grey, and we all seem to be the mirror in the attic. And he’s doing great. The town of Driggs is very open and friendly, and Skip wanders into shops and restaurants of his own free will, chatting up the owners, scamming free books, charming almost everyone. He’s lucky. So many of these kids are medicated and propped up all day in front of TV’s. It’s unimaginable, but true. In general, the mental health care system in this country is inclined to medicate and move on, and for a great percentage of these men and women, it’s a tragedy. But as I said, in the Teton Valley, he’s a king, and between my family (including Jane, my brother’s girlfriend) and the facilities that look after him, he’s one lucky man.
MT: Who is your favourite writer/photographer/artist? What is the best book you've read recently?
DN: Wow ... tough questions. I just finished The Kite Runner, which floored me; such simple story telling and yet this enormous piece of telling, all with lucidity, compassion and great mastery. Naturalist writer/philosopher David Quammen has a book on Darwin coming out in July that I’m very excited about. Quammen has had perhaps more influence on me than any other writer, from his “Natural Acts” collections of essays to “Song of The Dodo”. I even go so far as to name some of the work in Skip after him, based upon a devastating essay he wrote a while back called, “Planet of Weeds” for Atlantic Monthly.
My favorite photographers list is long. I love photography and I get hooked on new people every month. Call it the shallow habits of a Pisces. But, I’d have to say that the photo-reportage work of James Natchwey, Sebastio Salgado and Antonin Kratochvil has stood out for me as the rarest kind of photojournalism: brave, brilliantly framed, and deeply human without ever stooping to obviousness. It’s rigorous, difficult work and I make a point of following these 3 to see what’s going on in the world through their eyes.
In the fine art world, a young shooter out of the Yale school, David Hilliard is really great- he does these medium format, multiple paneled “stories” about his friends, family and people in his world that are deceptive- simple looking but beautifully staged and lit. He’s just really smart and his best work is completely transcendent. And I also love Keith Carter for his ability to locate the spiritual in the everyday, and the work of artist Gabriel Orozco for the wickedly smart ways he transforms any object into a work of art. I’d also be insane to leave out Robert Frank, who influenced just about everyone who ever picked up a 35mm camera, but who was able to move past his signature style and cultivate a deeply personal lexicon in later years that’s just knee weakening to look at.
And really, there are countless others. Mostly, I enjoy watching people evolve and I lose interest in those who don’t. So many people bust their asses to come up with “a look” and while I understand the difficulty and value in that, if that’s all you’re after, then It’s a fairly empty pursuit.
MT: Has the internet changed you reading/writing/researching and/or your art? As a photographer, are things like Flickr a boon?
DN: I can’t really tell what the internet’s effect on photography has been. I can definitely say that it provides access to those who want it, and that’s a good thing. Sites such as yours and others bring work to light that is often otherwise left to fade away. And I know that Flicker has some great shooters that use the site as a kind of visual diary. This is cool, because it keeps these artists doing something everyday, getting their work “up” so to speak where it can be seen and they can evolve. But there’s a frivolous side to this also: I find that the internet is choked with a lot of thoughtless work- a whole planet of folks vying for their 15 minutes. I guess what I think is this, and it’s simple: If you feel compelled to mass email your internet portfolio to an unsuspecting populace, have the good sense to hire an editor first. Three hundred and seventy shots of you and your girlfriend dancing at “Deep” gets old in a hurry.
MT: Thanks so much for your time David. All the very best.