I met Howard Grill a few months ago on a photo tour of Death Valley. A quiet and unassuming guy he blew the roof off the room when he showed off his prints of flowers. Ay caramba, they were stunning. Toward the end of the tour I was in a conversation with Howard about his work and website when he told me the story about shooting the old Carrie Furnace in Pittsburgh and finding a guy who had worked there who agreed to an interview. I was so excited about the historical aspects of this that I told him about my little website and history blog. He encouraged me to pick it up again. Once I got home and looked at his site and listened to the interview it gave me the boost of energy I needed to pick it up again. So, I would like to give him a shout out for getting me back on track to happy land.
While we may have a little mutual admiration society going on here, we couldn’t be more different. Howard grew up in Newark, New Jersey. Like many, his love of photography came when he was in the darkroom of a family friend and watched that first image come to life. For his 8th grade graduation he insisted on getting a camera and enlarger so he could make the magic on his own. But when the time came, instead of choosing photography as a profession Howard headed to medical school and parked his camera for a long hiatus.
We are very happy, however that Howard finally picked it up again because the world is a much better place for having his vision as part of it.
What is your first memory of photography?
I don’t really know. I remember reading popular photography. I can’t really remember what it is that grabbed me. It’s funny, as we’re talking about this I remember in medical school there was one week where I said, “maybe I have some time to do some of this after all.” And I remember walking around Boston and taking pictures. There was actually a little darkroom in the dormitory that nobody used because nobody had the time. So I printed a few pictures here and there and within a week I realized why nobody used it because nobody had the time and I didn’t have the time either!
Photography is a means of communication. What do you feel you are trying to communicate and to whom?
I don’t think I’m trying to tell something in terms of a particular message. Some people try, for example, to use nature photography for an ecological type message. I’m not really doing that although I do consider myself an environmentalist. But that’s not why I am doing it. I do it more to convey the feeling of being there. What it was like to be there. What it was like to see the sun rising through the fog. It is more about trying to recreate a feeling than it is a specific message. I guess you could say it’s more of a sentence than it is a paragraph or a chapter.
Why photography as a medium?
I have no talent for anything else! [Laughter] I can’t play an instrument. I can’t sing. You have to be passionate about something in order to do it well. Even when I was young I would I get into things very deeply. I want to explore it for all its worth and immerse myself into it. When I get out there, shooting is very meditative for me. Once I get involved in a scene I become very oblivious to what is going on around me.
Are there any subjects that you shoot that get you into the zone more than others?
I think one of the reasons I enjoy nature photography, besides the fact that I enjoy the beauty of nature, is that I like doing things very slow and exacting. So when you are out there you can sit and take your time. You don’t have to worry, for example if you are taking pictures of people, that they are getting fidgety. You don’t have to worry about anybody else. You can just self introspect and be there. The trees don’t care if you take the shot fast. I am able to do things in the way I want to do them. And I have an attachment to the subjects as well. I don’t like feeling rushed.
Do you think there is an intersection or correlation between your profession and photography?
Yes and no. There is an intersection in that I am an interventional cardiologist, which means that I do heart catheterization and stent placement and those sorts of things. So when we are doing that we are taking angiograms, making movies, moving pictures of the arteries in the heart. There is a certain fascination and beauty to see the heart beating in real time and to see blood flowing down arteries in the human body in real time, but that is not what I am thinking of when I am working.
Did you ever entertain photography as your profession?
Every day. (I say every day, but my wife probably says every hour!) Doing the photography I enjoy is frankly very difficult to make a living at it. I can see in the future wanting to go potentially part time at my work to do more things I like to do. The kind of photography I do is pretty amenable to be displayed in health care facilities. The hospital system I work for has bought a lot of my prints for their outpatient facilities and offices because it does have a calming effect. It is the kind of imagery that matches well with those locations.
When you are out in the field and having one of “those days” is there anything you do to kick it into gear?
There are two answers to that. The first is, everybody has those days where you aren’t feeling creative. You aren’t seeing. I don’t view it as a failure. There are times I’ve gone out and haven’t taken any pictures. But it’s still good. Just being out there and looking it’s still good. And I still enjoy it immensely. The second answer is, I asked my teacher Nancy Rotenberg that same question. She agreed that we all have days like that, but told me that the thing is if you just get out of the car and take pictures, just start exercising by taking pictures, you will start to work through that. And then there are those great days when you just can't stop seeing things.
What do you find is your biggest challenge as a photographer? (The taking pictures part… not the making money part.)
The toughest part is I tend to be a perfectionist. When I am home and looking at what I have done, a) I tend to be very critical and there is a small percentage that I process; and, b) when I am processing and trying to print I tend to be very exacting. It takes me a long time. I find it frustrating because there are other images I can be working on. My output isn’t as high as I like it to be.
Who inspires you? Who or what is your muse?
I do enjoy looking at other peoples’ work. I collect photography books, not the how to books, but monographs, images. One of the people who has affected me, not only in terms of picture taking but who also offers insight in a bigger way in terms of what to do with images, how to put them together, and the idea of how to be innovative about how you get your work out is Brooks Jensen. [Editor of Lens Work] He really has been exploring not just the artwork but how in this age different ways social media and the Internet can let you expand and find your audience.
Another person is Nancy Rotenberg who was one of the first people I did workshops with, and I did a lot with her. She certainly influenced my work greatly in the sense that the things she taught were what she called going beyond the handshake. To establish some type of relationship with the subject. Get beyond the surface and show what is special about it.
If you could give the young you some advice what would it be?
I think the 20 year old me did the right thing. Maybe it’s more appropriate to ask what the 20 year old me should advise to me today.
10. Color or Black and White? - Color
9. Film or Digital? - Digital
8. Traditional Darkroom or Digital Darkroom? - Digital
7. Objects or People? - Objects
6. Urban Jungle or Pretty Landscapes? – Pretty Landscapes
5. Weddings or Root Canal? - Root canal
4. Kitted out with Heavy Long Lens or Holga? - Kitted out
3. Commercial or Fine Art? - Fine art
2. Tell me about the one that got away. - Every day riding to work.
1. Tell me about the one you are still chasing. - The next one.
The Parting Shot
“I guess there must be something about freezing that moment in time and holding onto that moment forever. That moment can never be reproduced.”