With any artist -- photographer, musician, painter, whatever -- your life essentially is your process. You do your work. I'm 60 years old, I've been doing it since I was 9.
I live in what they pompously call SoHo, but I've lived there since I was a kid, in 1968, before it was called SoHo. And all I do in the morning is get out of bed -- my studio is my home. It's a loft the size of a basketball court. The only walls are the ones I built for my three darkrooms. I am about to build a fourth one. I've got a woodshop, I paint and I also make prints, lithographs, silk screens and etchings.
You work when the mood moves you, there's no time on it. Sometimes I would get up in the middle of the night, and go down and work if something hit me -- I can go down and put a dab of paint on. I don't carry my camera with me all the time and for the last 51 years I have taken a photograph every day and every night. All my work comes from my thoughts and feelings. And music -- I've listened to music my whole life, and music is essential to life. When I was a kid, the music was rock 'n' roll, and my early photographs are based on some of that. Then I got into classical music and my photographs started to change -- they're much more classical in structure. Then I started to listen to jazz, like Charlie Parker, Theolonius Monk and Lester Young. And jazz is more abstract so my picture began to become more asbtract.
While in high school, I started working for different guys shooting weddings, bar mitzvahs and portraits in small-town studios. After I left, I started working for the firm that did all the still photography for the movie companies in New York City. Lou [Reed]and I grew up together out in Freeport, Long Island, we've been friends since grade school. So when Lou went off to college, I was left shooting pictures of Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren and the Beatles. At that time, Lou and the Velvet Underground were just getting started, and he asked me to do their publicity photos. The next thing I know, the Velvet Underground is very famous, and the photographs became famous -- I had to go around the world to sue people and get my negatives back. It was a horror show for years. But then I never worked for anyone else again, I started working on my own stuff.
For years, I'd been paid to take pictures everyone wanted to see. So ego-wise I figured I was so good that I could make them see stuff they didn't want to see. I started shooting junkies and prostitutes and nursing homes. Some of it was politically motivated, I was always a heavy activist, against the war and against brutality.
The embalming series came from coping with the deaths of my father (he died at 42, when I was 9) and my brother (who died at 21 when I was 13). After 10 years of shooting junkies, I could handle anything, so it was really time for me to look at the one thing I couldn't look at. And then after I shot that series in 1974, I had a nervous breakdown, and stopped taking photographs.
[While]shooting the embalming photos, I had gone to a place that wigged me out. I was dealing with my father's death and brother's death. My death. Death per se. When I came back, I didn't shoot pictures of people any more. That's when the emotional landscapes started. The way it worked was, when I had the breakdown, I was totally afraid, and when I came back from being whacked out, I realized I was most afraid at night. So when I started shooting pictures again, I decided I was only going to take pictures at nighttime and find out why I was afraid. And that's how that series of photographs started. And from that I went to shooting during daytime. My camera has been so many things over the years, the least of which was a way of making money; then, it was almost like therapy.
In the seventies and eighties, I was doing stuff that people would call soft focus, but it's specifically focused -- I got people to see stuff they actually saw, but didn't know they had seen it. I changed the whole structure of photography, from a hard-edged line to a soft-edged line, to put more emotion into the works. It all stemmed from feelings, it wasn't an intellectual exercise. There's no meter in these photos, I was doing long, hand-held exposures for seconds, minutes at a time, with a 35 millimetre camera. There's no tricks, no burning or dodging, it's all on the negative. I figured out how to get my vision onto a piece of film, rather than what the camera sees.
I was a lucky kid, because I worked with guys who were genuine photographers, old-timers, and they were all newspaper photographers. People like Jules Heller, the first to use a synchronized flash in New York City. And I learned from them. I didn't learn it from a book, I learned by doing it, even if it was what not to do. That's what keeps it exciting. I'm still learning, I'm still pushing the parameters of what photography is supposed to be. And when I teach, I always tell everybody they can do it -- they can do anything they want to do, they just have to work at it. And I really believe that. New York photographer Donald Greenhaus has exhibited around the world. An exhibition of his emotional landscapes continues to June 2 at the Club Lucky Gallery in Toronto, part of the Contact Photography Festival. Call 416-606-5867 for information. He spoke to Rebecca Caldwell.