Forthcoming, Spring 2014:

Artist's Statement:

My photography over the years has covered a wide range of subjects and styles. However, the work that has most defined my career is the result of my commitment to several very ambitious documentary projects. In time, this has led to me being perceived primarily as a documentary photographer.


I was part of a large collaborative documentary project on the Minnesota Iron Range, exploring the plight of the miners and their communities which were being devastated by the massive economic upheaval in the steel industry. It was very significant work and helped shape my attitudes toward the relationship between the photographer and the subject. The best of that work was prominently displayed in the very communities that it documented, and the people and places included were declared unequivocally to be the worthy subjects of art. It wasn’t “taking” pictures in the literal sense of extracting images, but participating in their world and sharing the results of the process.


Another significant project was a lengthy exploration of the presence and impact of the nuclear industry on this country, both military and civil. From the “friendly atom” to nuclear brinksmanship to the profound issue of eternally toxic waste, I attempted to provide images that could give us some insight into the physical, political and cultural implications of our participation in the nuclear age. Some of this work has been included in exhibitions that have traveled internationally. That body of work will be represented in the forthcoming book Open for Survival (Atomic America Awakens) also available through Naciketas Press.


My process has evolved over time, but there are certain technical aspects that are still part of the foundation of my work. Early on, I believed that framing every image in the camera was a necessary measure of the craft. I don’t have anything against cropping and manipulation, per se, but Photoshop can’t substitute for the vision that I saw as essential to claiming artistry in the resulting image. I often printed my images with a border of the negative to demonstrate that there was no post-production “fix” involved. It was a matter of personal artistic pride to declare “this I saw.”


My preference for using wide angle lenses runs counter to much conventional documentary work because it necessitated that I be in very close proximity to my subject. Many photographers, fearful of being intrusive will hang back with longer lenses that provide a comfort zone of sorts, whether for themselves or their subjects or both. But the wide angle both allowed and demanded that I risk intimacy with my subjects. I couldn’t hide or be anonymous and that meant I had to first create the necessary comfort level by interacting with people, asking and earning their permission. The results paid off in exponential levels of emotion and raw presence that would have been totally absent in a safe snapshot. I couldn’t just take a picture, I usually had to work for it, practically be in it myself, but the effort was worth it.


I will always have a romantic involvement with black and white photography. Much of my early work was exclusively black and white with grainy Tri-X that I nevertheless enlarged relentlessly, celebrating the grain and the impact of the world defined only by light and dark. Now that we are past film, black and white is still a choice but one that can often seem pretentious. I miss the time when that was the authentic medium, revealing itself through a chemical haze in one of my many cobbled-together darkrooms. Those classic black and white images of my youth are still among my favorites.


This retrospective of my work is composed exclusively of those images that I would call documentary. So what makes one image a snapshot and another, of perhaps the same subject, a documentary photograph? Believe me, if I had an exact definition I would share it with you and point out how these selections fit in that box. That doesn’t mean it’s totally subjective. I present these as works of “social documentation”, a term that I believe requires the photographer to enter into the world of the subject and the image to be a window into a wider social context, interesting by and for itself, but indicative of something broader, bigger and outside of itself, a true image that points to an even larger truth. Gathered from across the country, I present these to you as authentic Americana.


James Crnkovich