I interviewed Don House, one of the truly great photographers in the Ozarks, for the Ozark Gazette in 1996. This Q&A interview gives a lot of insights into House’s personal views.
I have always enjoyed the Q&A format, especially those one could find in Playboy (which I don’t read anymore, Tracy!) ,Omni (anybody remember that one?) Rolling Stone and others. This interview is included in my book, Ozark Mosaic: Adventures in Arkansas Alternative Journalism, 1990-2002.
Don House: Perceptions of Reality
Photographer Don House moved to Fayetteville in the 1980s. Like many before him, he found it impossible to leave. Largely self-taught, he is known for his innovative style, whether it is commercial, portraiture, or his social commentary, such as the “Women and Violence” series.
Don moved to Arkansas at the urging of his sister, Glenda, whom he credits for “making me sensitive to areas that I might not otherwise have been.”
Ozark Gazette: What can you tell us about your training? Where were you trained in photography?
Don House: I'm strictly self-taught as a photographer. I've been doing it full-time professionally for about fifteen years, and opened up a studio here in Fayetteville about twelve years ago.
OG: Are you from Fayetteville?
House: No, I came down from Detroit. I have a sister who has been living here longer than I have, and she pulled me down here.
OG: What got you interested in the first place?
House: I started doing portraits, starting with family and then moving outside of that circle. But it has always been the interest in photographing people, no matter what else I do, commercially or in advertising. I always come back to that. There is a certain point that you reach where you concentrate on capturing the look or the character of someone and then over time you begin to hone those technical skills so that you can make the presentation a little nicer.
But I think certainly that if you are photographing people, you can get by with being self-taught easier because capturing the character is such an important part of it that people are willing to excuse a lot of technical problems.
I give my father credit for pushing me in this direction. He had a part-time job when I was very young in a theater on an Army base. We would take “instant” pictures of soldiers going into the movies. It looked like a twenty-five cent instant photo booth that they would go into and have their pictures taken, and when they got out of the movie, the photographs would be ready. Behind that booth he and I would be sloshing prints.
That was probably the first time I saw that magic of an image coming up in a tray. Later on he worked at Montgomery Ward. At that time they would take all your old cameras in trade if you bought a new one. So he constantly had this supply of broken, beat up old 35's that were obsolete. I would get my hands on those once in a while.
OG: Have you been in this particular studio for twelve years?
House: No, actually my first studio was right across the street from the De-Lux, and it was called the Photographers Cooperative. It was mostly gallery, with a little studio in the back. We were promoting local photographers, primarily, though we would bring in nationally known photographers we had come in contact with in the past to do workshops.
Then we moved the studio down to the Ice House on West Street. We fixed that up, and used it for a couple of years. Eventually we ended up here. I’ve only been in this particular space for a little over a year.
OG: Do you encourage your customers to choose the look of their particular portraits? Or do you pretty much know what you want to do with a person when they come in?
House: I don’t give them any choice, really. I’m lucky if they have seen any of my work in the past, then they come in kind of knowing what they want. I only take black and white portraits. If they come in wanting color I either talk them out of it or I refer them to someone else. Black and white for portraiture, for me, is the only medium. And I like dark, nondescript backgrounds that are either pitch black or dark gray.
I like to remove every possible distraction. I like to concentrate on the face. They can wear anything they want to, but I usually tell them that the best photographs are going to be casual. A lot of times I’ll have them sitting down on the ground.
I’ve never found anyone who was not photogenic.
OG: Do you have any special subjects?
House: For me, it is an individual parent and child. There is a certain dynamic that takes place when you have children with one parent that can be just magical. If you bring another parent in, no matter how much love there is in that family, it changes everything. The relationship between the two parents overrides everything else. You get rid of one of the parents and the children just drape themselves differently.
OG: Do you work entirely in black and white?
House: No, if it is for advertising, I’ll do it in color.
OG: As far as color goes, I notice that your work has a shimmery, painterly effect. How do you do that?
House: That is something I have really enjoyed doing the last couple of years. It is actually done by shooting Polaroid film on a real cheap camera. There is a small window of time on Polaroid film after you take it when the emulsion is soft. So by going in and moving the emulsion around you can make changes in the way that people view the image. Then I’ll copy the film or scan it into a computer and then enlarge it. I then print it out onto watercolor paper.
OG: You’ve done a series called “Women and Violence.” Can you tell us a little about that?
House: There are four in the series now, and it will grow. It was a project that started several years ago by comments that women friends of mine were making about the concerns they had about the way that female sexuality and violence were being used together in advertising imagery. I started looking around more carefully at the images I was seeing.
And it was true. I saw some disturbing images, and in talking with women, and showing them images from magazines I found that a lot of images that I was not looking at as being disturbing, they were. There is a photographer who is known for producing advertising images where there is an aura of violence. A couple come to mind immediately. There is an ad that was done for jewelry and it showed a woman whose clothes were disheveled, and she is laying backwards on a bed. It looks like there has been a lot of activity on this bed. She is leaning back on her neck is over the bed, and she looks like she has been raped and strangled. There is a ring of pearls around her neck, which is what the product was.
The photographer purposely produced those images. He was known for it. Another one was for shoes, and it showed women in Central Park who were laying as if they had been killed.
Some of them were in bushes, their faces hidden. Others were laying on the ground, but in positions that looked as if they had had violence done to them. I think to many women, those images would be disturbing.
OG: A lot of men might find them disturbing.
House: A lot of men don't find them disturbing, is what I have found. That is what really prompted this series, the idea that men just don't get it. For most men the idea of sexual assault is not a reality, and they just don't understand it, or the fear that it can engender in women and how it affects so many women's lives. Where they go, what they do, the effect this can have.
One in three women will be sexually abused by the time they are eighteen. That means that in Fayetteville, where there may be twenty thousand women, at any one time, seven thousand of the women either have been or will be sexually abused. In Rape Crisis in Fayetteville they get three or four hundred calls a year. These are adult victims of rape, or their loved ones calling for counseling or help.
So it is not just an academic question dealing with female sexuality and violence in advertising whether it has affect on people. A lot of times when I am thinking about an issue like that I like to substitute something analogous and see if it still holds.
OG: Can you give us an example?
House: I think if I were to show you a photograph of Plantation Jeans that showed a group of white men laughing and walking down the road, and in the background you saw an African-American man hanging from a tree, just out of focus, I don’t think anyone that I know would look at that image and go “lt's just a photograph, it's not real. You're taking it too seriously.”
But they will say that when you show them a picture of a woman such as we have just talked about, where there is an aura of violence. A lot of men will say, “It's not real. Everybody knows it.” If I showed an image for Justin Boats that was a Nazi officer with his foot on the back of a Jew, no one would accept those same arguments. But yet, numbers for violence against women should make us more sensitive to that than anything.
OG: In your own series, "Women and Violence,” one of the photos in that collection is called “Woman with Gun,” and another is called “Woman with Sword.” What exactly were you trying to say with this series?
House: Well, the idea behind the project originally was because I wanted to come up with an image that a man could understand in the sense of why should we be showing male sexuality and violence? Could I come up with an image where I could put a man in the position that the women have been in, so that a man could understand the discomfort that the woman feels. I found it very difficult to do. You can’t just substitute by having a man laying on a bed looking like he’s just had sex because it doesn’t have the same effect.
In his life, a man is not worried about being raped. It is just not a fear that he has. So putting him in that photograph is a fantasy of sorts. It is much easier for him to look at that photograph and realize that it doesn’t represent reality. So what I wanted to come up with were images that were equivalent using male sexuality that might make men uncomfortable.
I have failed miserably, and the project has failed miserably. But in some of the experiments, which are what people have seen, I certainly have been able to come up with something that would make men uncomfortable. The one you refer to, “Woman with Gun,” shows a woman’s hand holding a loaded .38 next to a man’s penis. This was shot on large format, so it is very detailed and kind of dramatic. It certainly makes some men very uncomfortable.
It is an image where a woman is empowered, and I suppose in that sense it is successful. “Woman with Sword” was a Polaroid transfer technique that I like, a very painterly effect. It shows a woman holding a large sword and what looks like the severed head of a man. It refers back to some imagery from the past, like the hero holding the head of Medusa. It doesn’t do what I was hoping as a project but at least it shows women in positions of power.
OG: What about the photograph, “Woman with Bandage.” What are you trying to convey here?
House: This photograph shows a woman’s torso, and she has a bandage on her arm. In reality, this woman has not been abused. She had injured her wrist and was wearing a wrist bandage. But seeing her with that bandage, the image presented itself. The way she is sitting, and the way the light is coming in from the window, casting shadows on her breasts and on her body looks like bruising.
When people saw this image for the first time the fact that they jumped to the conclusion that this was an abused woman was maybe more than anything indicative of how prevalent it is. That’s why I included it in the series.
Ozark Gazette - March 4, 1996