Did reproducing your pictures in such large sizes present any problems for you?
I was used to seeing the pictures in intimate formats—8” x 10” or 11” x 14”—but I had made large prints before. The first time I did really big prints—which was only possible because we worked digitally—was for my “Women” show at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1999. I had seen Chuck Close’s very large prints—self-portraits— the year before at the Museum of Modern Art. He put four Iris prints together. Close’s printer was David Adamson, in Washington, and I went to David and asked him to create prints for me. For the Corcoran show, we blew up a photograph of my mother, and Patti Smith. These simple portraits became sort of visual guideposts for the show.
How did the collaboration with TASCHEN come about?
Benedikt Taschen wrote me a letter about doing a Sumo book, it seemed like a natural progression from the Corcoran show.
Were there any curatorial surprises when you started working on the book?
Not when I started, but what happened was that the process ended up taking place over a fairly long period of time. When I realized that we weren’t going to make the first deadline for getting the book out, I let it sit for a while and when I looked at it again, I realized that it needed more work. I had thought initially that I just had to imagine what photographs looked good big. It was more complicated than that. The first ideas I had were put aside, although there are remnants of them. My books are usually arranged chronologically. There is more early work in the beginning of this book than later, but I tried to throw off the idea of chronology. I didn’t want anyone to look at the book and call it a retrospective. That was important to me. When you put so many of my pictures together, you can’t help but say, Oh, is that her greatest work? But this is not a retrospective. It is a kind of potpourri. A roller coaster. As you go through it, you forget what you saw in the beginning. You’re in another place toward the end. I had thought that I would put a lot of photographs in this book that might not otherwise be used in a book. As it evolved, I found myself going back to some more popular photographs that seemed to be nice to have as statements.
The book is very personal, but the narrative is told through popular culture. There are no pictures of family or friends. The nature of my work changes constantly. I was finishing up a project called “Pilgrimage,” a book and exhibition which include still lifes. I found myself putting in some of these still lifes, which in my mind are portraits of people who are gone. I put in a photograph of the TV that Elvis took a shot at in his house in Palm Springs and a page from Emily Dickinson’s herbarium.
How would you describe the TASCHEN book?
It’s not really a book. It sits on a stand. You can find a photograph that you care about and leave the book open to that and sort of dwell on it. There was a lot of discussion with Frank Goerhardt, the Head of Production, about paper. He would say, oh, when it sits there, you don’t get the glare with this or that paper. I didn’t realize at first why that was important. It’s hard to design a book that is not really a book. Everyone who worked on this built it as a book while trying to understand it as an installation. I’m not sure we succeeded completely, but we tried. This is not a book that you’re going to put in your lap. You’re going to look at it from a distance. One picture at a time. It’s nice to go through it in sequence, turning the pages, but I don’t know how many times anyone will do that. The supplement book that comes with the big book is essential. It allows you to quickly see what the pictures are and then you can turn to what you want.
You’ve said that you thought that one of the major themes of the book is “performance.”
Having your photograph taken involves a performance, portraits particularly. The photographer provides the subjects with a stage—but then they have to project. You are taking a real picture in real time no matter how conceptual it is. There is a reality in the performance. My background as a photographer is as an observer. I’m a terrible director.
Still on the subject of performers, do you have a favorite type that you like to photograph?
The performers I have the most rapport with are comedians, who make up a very special group. They’re sort of like maniac depressives. I sympathize with them. They are usually also very intelligent. For me, the classic photograph of a comedian is Charlie Chaplin just leaning. That is such an extraordinarily funny picture. It’s as perfect a photograph as you could ever have of a comedian. Chaplin came from silent films. The challenge for a photographer is to create a visually funny picture without it being stupid. It’s difficult to take a funny picture.