John Dyer is a photographer, novelist and screenwriter. He is the author of Conjunto(University of Texas Press, October, 2005) El Vaquero Real, The Original American Cowboy (Bright Sky Press, September, 2007) and San Antonio Hidden Treasures (Private Commission, 2011), Edge of Texas was shot in 2019 and is yet to be published. John has exhibited his photographs at a wide variety of museums and galleries and is represented by Heidi Vaughan Fine Art in Houston, Texas. In 2019, the National Portrait Gallery acquired one of his Selena portraits. John’s exhibition, “Selena Forever/Siempre Selena” opened at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in September, 2021.
John is the author of The Lure (Amazon, 2016), and The Past Has No Regrets (Amazon, 2017), both novels. He's written several screenplays and produced and directed several short films, including: José, 2016 and I Miss You Already, 2017. Both are currently being broadcast internationally on ShortsTV channel. John lives with his wife, the painter Diane Mazur, in San Antonio, Texas.
John's work: www.dyerphotography.com
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Ashley Rindsberg: So John Dyer, thank you so much for joining us on the Burning Castle Podcast. It's great to talk to you. I love speaking to photographers in particular. It's literally a unique perspective, but also of course, but figuratively. So before we jump into the meat of it, just want to give people a bit more about you, where you are, what you do, where you've come from, and then we can get into the substance.
John Dyer: I'm originally from Montana. I was born 30 miles from the Canadian border. I've lived in South Texas, San Antonio since about the early sixties. I have an undergraduate degree in painting. I have a graduate degree in the history of art. And it was in graduate school that I began to be interested in photography.
Ashley Rindsberg: And what was it that that caught you? Why did you take that turn?
John Dyer: Sure. There were two men there, one who was retiring and both these guys were giants, so photography from the 20th century. One by the name of Russell Lee, who was retiring and he was being replaced by another man named Gary Winogrand, who was a different generation from a different part of the country. And between the two, they showed me two diametrically different ways of photographing, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Russell Lee earned his reputation, shooting pictures during the depression in the states in the 1930s. He was hired by a federal agency called Farm Securities Administration along with several other photographers, very prominent photographers, whose job was to go out, fan out across the in the smaller towns and villages and ranches and farms of the west and document poverty. People in the big cities knew that times were bad and they knew that people were suffering, but they had no idea that in the smaller towns and farms and ranches, children were starving to death. And fathers were killing themselves because they were so ashamed and not being able to take care of their families.
And so, that was the mandate of these photographers to go out and somehow ingratiate themselves. Well, let's think about Russell Lee; drives out in a Model A to a little town in Wisdom, Montana, and goes out to a ranch, drives up to a ranch. Here's a rancher that's really struggling, really having a hard time. And he introduces himself, he's got a coat and tie on, he's from the city, he's a stranger, he's probably not wanted there. And somehow or ther other, Russell Lee was able to ingratiate himself with these people, allay their fears about what he was doing and what he wanted to do and penetrate their reality and photograph them in their poverty and in their suffering and send those photographs back to Washington. And then those photographs were used in newspapers and magazines in articles written by the government to say, "Look, this is why we need to pass these new deal plans because this is how bad it really is."
So it was definitely a government thing and definitely intend to dissuade public opinion. But what came out of that effort among all these photographers is some of the most sublime photographs of the 20th century. So here's Russell Lee, he was an old man by the time I met him. I learned a lot from him about his approach. And then he was replaced by a man by the name of Gary Winogrand, who was earning quite a reputation for himself. He was from New York. He was the quintessential street shooter. He prow the streets of the Bronx and Brooklyn and New York, and just taking pictures as he found them. And so, I was in trance by these two guys because they were both very charismatic and they both wove a story that was intoxicating to me.
I didn't understand anything about photography. I didn't understand much about how cameras worked. It was a long learning curve for me, but I knew that it was something that I wanted to try. Russell Lee, they were the ones that illustrated to me, I'd think what for me became the great dichotomy in photography, those that make pictures and those that take pictures. Russell Lee was a maker of pictures. Garry Winogrand was a taker of pictures. And the difference is, the taker of pictures goes out into the world with his little Leica, with a 35 millimeter lens on it, remember this is all film. And as reality presents itself to him, he throws the camera up in front of him and puts his frame around an instant of time and space and snapped the shutter, and that's what he's got.
Those guys don't crop their photos. They don't do anything to them. You either get it or you don't. You don't ask permission, you try to become invisible if you can. Now, Russell on the other hand would get the permission of people in order to photograph them and together they would collaborate in making a photograph. So I tried my hand at both. I bought a Leica with a 35 millimeter lens and wandered around the streets and parades and events in different places and tried to do what Garry Winogrand did. And it's very difficult to do. And to me, it was kind of thankless. It didn't do what I needed it to do. So it became clear to me that Russell’s approach getting the permission of the subject, working together to create a photograph. That's what the rest of my career has kind of been based on is collaborating on the process of taking pictures, as opposed to just taking them and turning and walking away.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah. And I think you see that in your work where it feels like there is something that has been very, very carefully produced. There's almost something painterly about some of the images. I'm thinking that this is a remarkable image of a man with a full-sized base which is on fire. And it's a great... everyone, you got to look it up. I don't know what the name of the photo is, but it's something where...
John Dyer: It was a man by the name of Wone Viesca and here in San Antonio, that's from a book I did in 2007, a kind of roots music, which is specific to South Texas and Northern Mexico called Conjunto. And it's equal parts Northern Mexican ranch had a music and German music. The key instrument in the Conjunto is the accordion, which was right out of Germany and Czechoslovakia. And they will sing songs and they will also sing polkas and mazurkas, which with your background that those are Eastern European songs. And this man Wone Viesca played was called a contrabass, which is the upright bass. He played it all of his life for 50 years. And for some reason, at the end of his sessions is his performances, he would lie to his bass on fire. And so in doing this book, I arranged to take a picture of him.
And we did different places around his house and got into his kitchen and he posed, and I was taking pictures and he said, "Well, you're ready for me to light my base up?" I said, "Yeah, here in the kitchen, oh yeah." So it's a little bit deceptive. He turned it around. So if you'll notice the photo, the fire is on the back of the base, it's not on the string side. And his son came in and put a little clear alcohol on it and struck a match to it, and it just [gasp sound] and that was it. It didn't burn the bass up. I took two pictures, the second one is the one that's in the book. I got lucky and got the flame doing its thing. You can see he's kind of leaning away from the flame a little bit. But that was clearly an example of what we're talking about, clearly he and I were working together to make that picture.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah. Though in that case, there's a bit of a mix because you really had only one or I guess two, but two very limited opportunities. Because I imagine, he wasn't going to light that based on fire over and over and over, so he got the perfect shot. It was kind of like here's the time to get it. It's a great photo. People can see it at heidivaughnfineart.com. Amazing photo.
John Dyer: Thank you for mentioning that. She's a real important person in my life.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah. And it's a great place to see John's work, including the iconic photos of Selena, which you took. And these are kind of photos that define one of the most important influential pop figures of the 20th century by far. This young woman who's kind of reached this mythical status because of her early death. But these are good. These are remarkable photos because you see a human being inside of the pop star, which is the great thing, because usually when you're looking at iconic photos of pop stars or rock stars, you see the image, you see the contour. But in so many of these photos, you see this young woman who that she was, and you see her in some cases, joy, in some cases, vulnerability or other things. But if you could just tell us a little bit more about how that all came to be and what it was like to take those photos and to achieve what you did with them.
John Dyer: Yeah, in 1992, I was contacted by a magazine called MAS, which means "more" in Spanish. It was the Spanish language magazine that originated in New York. I'd never heard of them. And they said there's a young lady in South Texas, a singer that's beginning to make a name for herself. I'd heard of her, other than that, didn't know much about her and we're going to do a cover story. Well, a cover story to a photographer means you've got to have a strong photo for the cover. And then you've got to have a handful of additional photographs, different to illustrate an article, which has probably several pages.
So we made arrangements. I got in touch with - I think it was got in touch with her father for her to come by my studio. I had a big 2000 square foot studio at the time. And before that, I'd set up some different situations where I could place her and do photos of her. One with a red curtain hanging down the wall, one with just a gray background, and then the third one was a wall space out in front of my studio. I wanted to end up out there in the late afternoon, but photographers call liquid light, beautiful light. And she showed up in a little red car by herself and opened up the back. And it was packed with probably every costume that she possessed for doing her performances. And we gathered them up in arms, came into my dressing room.
We probably worked eight hours. One of the things that a photographer has to do, you work on like parallel paths when you're photographing anybody, but particularly a celebrity. You're getting to know them. You're getting to hopefully make them feel safe and that they're in the hands of somebody that knows what they're doing. I mean, the worst thing you can do if you're a photographer and you're about to photograph somebody is your tripod falls over, a light doesn't work, you started fumbling around. And then a little mark question goes in the mind of the subject thinking, gee, does this guy really know what he's doing? Maybe I better be careful here. Maybe the photos are going to be me picking my nose or whatever. I mean, it's a little bit like you're in the dental chair and your mouth is open. The dentist is hard at work on a tooth in the back and he goes, "Oops." You think, am I in the wrong place?
So that's a first thing you do, you have to create. And this is almost a cliche and I don't want it to sound like a cliche, but you try to create a safe environment, a safe space for this subject so that they can be themselves. Particularly the celebrities; they're very careful about how they look to a camera. And a lot of times they'll have a good side, the bad side, or they will or they won't smile, and you kind of get this list of this is what I will do. And this is what I won't do. Fortunately, she wasn't like that. We got along immediately and she was friendly and fun and full of energy and somehow or other, she came to believe that I knew what I was doing, and we worked together to do these photos.
She's a performer so she was used to being seen by people, so she didn't have any reticence about dancing or posing or smiling for the camera; that didn't intimidate her. Most people don't like to have their pictures made, I think the camera just absolutely loved her, and I think she knew the camera loved her. And so we would go, would step in front of the red curtain and do different things. She'd have an outfit on, she'd go in the dressing room and change outfits. We'd step in front of the gray background and so on. And I took quite a lot of film. This is film, not digital. I was shooting two and a quarter transparencies, if that means anything to.
Ashley Rindsberg: No.
John Dyer: You're just a kid, you don't know about film. Photographers, when I first started, had to have quite a deep knowledge of technique and materials, and there were different kinds of films specific to different kinds of light. You had to be very careful with exposure. I had a handheld photo light meter. To get the exposure right with a lights, you had to be very good at setting lights up and know how the film would react to certain lights and so forth. Now with digital cameras, the camera does most of that, it does color balancing, it does exposure for you. It does focus for you. All the cameras are used back then were all manual focus, manual exposure, so there was in the background, a lot of kind of technical knowledge I needed to bring to that session. Well, any of the sessions I did back then so that I'd end up with some images on film and have something to show for eight hours of working with somebody. But that's kind of how that were. She gave me truth and she gave me honesty. And maybe I contributed to that, but I think it was just something that kind of an aura got from her.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah. And you still, you still see it and you still feel it through those photos. They're amazing. And I wonder, this is kind of one of those - I think something that occurs to people who have this [puristic] tendency, like, as I feel like I do, which is, did having to master those technical elements of a film camera help you or force you to shoot in a different way, or maybe it's just shoot in a way that is a little bit more rich because you're really having to pay attention to every single element. In fact, there were today, as you're saying, you can take a good digital camera, even on not a good digital camera, just press the button and you're going to get something that looks reasonable. Do you find that that played an element in being able to get these kinds of shots?
John Dyer: Yeah. I mean, I used a medium format camera. There's like three general sizes. There's 35 millimeter that everybody knows like a color slide is 35 millimeter. There's a size a film up from that each frame is two and a quarter by two and a quarter square. And then you go one step up from that it's called large format. Each piece of film is four inches by five inches. I shot some four by five film of her too. 35 millimeter film cameras would work pretty quickly. There are 36 shots on one roll of film, so you could shoot pretty quickly. I never liked that much because the film is small and there's not a lot of information on it. So if I want to do enlargements kind of limited to how big your enlargements can be. Medium format, there are 12 shots on a roll. So the 12 shots, and then you have to stop for like a minute, minute and a half to reload films. So you necessarily think about each frame and try to take your time.
And I did that on purpose because I tend to shoot too quickly. Now I've got digital cameras and I just shoot them like a machine gun. And then four by five, you shoot one frame at a time and then you have to load another piece of film and then shoot another frame, so you're really working slow. And I did that on purpose so that it would slow me down and make me think about what I was doing and be a little more careful about talking to my subject and about composing and is my light just right and so forth.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah. When you're looking at your photos, it's such a spectrum that on the one hand kind of starts from something that does look more like Russell Lee. You have photos that kind of look like they're from a completely different century; photos of the west of, I'm assuming a lot of it being Texas. And then there's stuff that is very much of the moment, that's very much the here and now, and there are things that don't align with that spectrum as well. So the question that I think that I'm kind of reaching for is how has the photography changed as the world around you has changed? I don't know how much photography you do of the kind of stuff that you'd seem to have done in the past, which is people, ranchers and horses and that kind of thing. Is that kind of thing still relevant or do you feel like the photography had to change with the changing world?
John Dyer: Well, that's a good question. I think what you're asking is have I changed my approach or my perspective based on the changing world. No, I'm old enough to, I guess, kind of be set in my ways. I mean, are there subjects out there that didn't exist 20 years ago that need to be photographed? I suppose there are - I don't know how to answer that, Ashley, to be honest with you. I think my mentality, my approach is pretty much the same. And I tend to gravitate toward interesting people doing interesting things. I wish I could say that there's a political component to what I'm doing or an overtly cultural component to what I'm doing, but only in the sense of it being interesting people doing interesting things. I try not to do an overlay on what I shoot or what I select that is intended to project some kind of message. I've just tried to be honest with what I'm doing and tell the truth.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah. Well I think in a way now, as I think more about it, when you've got a lot of these photos, and again, I'm assuming a lot of these are Texas, certainly look like the American South or Southwest rancheros and people on horses with hats and boots and everything like that, which really do in the very first moment they strike you as something from the 19th century. But now as our attention nationally is being brought back to these places, is being brought back to the United States border with Mexico. It's being brought back to Texas, which is somehow become this throbbing cultural center of the country, where you've got Austin as this emergent cultural center. You've got technology fleeing from Silicon Valley to Texas. And so it's kind of come full circle. Where these photos that look like they're from a different century, now look like they're not from a different century. They look like they're almost relatable when we're starting to think about the stories of people who are living on this border, that's become so important who are crossing the border or on the other side of the border as well, where it feels really immediately relevant in a way that it may not have just five or 10 years ago. And that's like very interesting things, it's as if the country caught up with you, at least in logistically. That's just something that had occurred to me.
John Dyer: That's interesting, Ashley.
Ashley Rindsberg: Another thing I wanted to ask you about is something that you touched on earlier, which is the digital camera and what did the ease of it and the power of it, which is two sides of the same coin. Because on the one hand, the digital camera makes it possible for really anybody to just go out and start shooting photos however they want, and the cost barrier is so low because you don't have to have the film taken to a lab to be produced and to have all the materials that go into it, you just shoot and then see what you like. On the other hand, I can imagine, and I have friends, a friend of mine, Zach Ponts, who's a photographer, a younger photographer who was a writer and he sort of switched into photography in his thirties. I could imagine that being a very daunting thing in today's world that is filled with photography, that is filled with photographic imagery and to think how can you possibly add something to that stream that is just so saturated with imagery. There's just no threshold, there's no barrier to entry anymore. Is that something that you think about, or is this something that is not as relevant to you because you are so well established in your career? What's your take on?
John Dyer: Yes, I have thought about that. And I think if I thought about it too much, it would drive me nuts. But it, but it has to do a little bit with this notion that there are only a certain number of ideas. It's a little bit like you, you're a writer. What is it they say, there are only three storylines; love story, a quest, and sort of a revenge or something. I think that's it. I think Aristotle said that. Yeah. And so if you want to be a writer and you say, well, there are only three stories in here where you are 10,000 years into people writing stories, why should I bother? It's all been done. But it's not about that. It's not about the idea; it's what you do with the idea. And that makes it fresh and different every day.
You have to somehow tell yourself you're a unique human being. You have an unique perspective, a unique take on life. And that if you put a camera up in front of your face, because you are a unique human being, you're going to take a different picture than somebody else. I absolutely believe that. Or if I didn't believe that, I's quit taking pictures. Well, all the pictures that can be taken have been taken - obviously that's not right. Again, you, as a writer, there've been an awful lot of stories written, but have they all been written, have they all been told? And if I asked you that you would say, absolutely not. There's still things that I can tell as a writer. And I can tell it in my own voice and give a different perspective on it.
But you're right there. We're inundated with so much imagery today, Google images and all the rest of it, most of which have been done by digital cameras, that it would be easy to be intimidated by that. When I was thinking about you and I talking, I was thinking about like flower, pictures of flowers. I mean, how many pictures of flowers have there been? And yet it's still possible to take pictures of flowers that are interesting and fresh and new and different. So it's not the idea, it's what you do with the idea. I mean, I kind of got off where you were talking about digital cameras, but...
Ashley Rindsberg: No, I think that's to the point, I think what you said is the real point. And I think that's where anyone, no matter what field, even if they're not in the arts or letters, they face that same factor of intimidation to say, do I, little me, really have something to contribute to this massive body of whatever it is I'm trying to do. And it's a weird thing because on the one hand, you kind of have to withdraw yourself from that world and say, "Okay, I am me, my perspective matters. It's important." And on the other hand, you can't get lost in that notion that your perspective is so magical because then you end up doing something so cystic, something that just becomes really childish because you're not really challenging yourself with an audience.
It's like finding that tension. I mean, maintaining that tension between you as the individual artists and the big broad world out there that's judging or even worse ignoring, or maybe accepting and celebrating you; that I think is a very fine line. It's a very fine amount of tension. And I think it's probably something that whatever you do wherever you are, if you're a photographer, or a writer, an entrepreneur, musician, or anything else, you have to constantly always be playing with that, always be adjusting it. Like a musical instrument, always be tuning it so there's just the right amount of tension between you and the world and you and the audience, or you and your subject matter as well. And it's a very, very...
John Dyer: Well, I think you also have to ask yourself, why are you doing this thing? Am I doing it for an audience, or am I doing it for myself? And I think if you say I'm doing it for an audience, I think you're making a big mistake. I think you have to start with the idea that I'm doing this for myself, for the good of my soul. And I'm going to be honest and truthful about it. And then what results is, I'm going to lay claim to that, and this comes from a true, genuine part of me. If you out there, if you like it fine, if you don't like it - but if you start trying to create a photo or a story with somebody else in mind, hoping they'll like it, I think you'd agree with me, I think that's a big mistake because you can never win that game.
Ashley Rindsberg: You can never. No, you'll never win. You'll always be chasing that dragon.
John Dyer: Yeah, you're chasing the bus, the bus has already left. It's like different kind of styles, styles come and go and writing, they come and go in photography. And if you see a style that you're really seduced by, and by the time you learn how to do that style, the bus has already moved down somewhere else, you're just chasing ephemera. You can't play that game.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah, that's true. And it's such a tempting game to play, especially today where style, especially in writing, I don't know if it's the case in photography, but in fiction, probably even a non-fiction, it is so trend driven. It's driven by trends. In writing in fiction, especially they talk about voice. Who's got the voice that people want to hear, and voice is a lot about style, it's also about subject matter, but what you said is the key. If you see someone whose "voice" is succeeding and you try to go and grab on to that, the energy of that trend, you will never succeed. You will be behind. And I think you also, at that point, compromise what you're doing and it loses the point because then you're aiming for fame. You're aiming for money. You're aiming for something extrinsic to what the thing actually is.
John Dyer: Exactly right. And when you've created something, whether it's a novel or short story, or whether it's a photograph, you need to be able to look at that and say, does this feel right? Does this feel honest? Does this feel truthful? And the affirmation of it needs to come from inside, that good feeling you get that I did something that we're all a parts work, all the parts fit together, and they all combined to make something that I feel good about, and then you can show it to other people. We're saying the same thing.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah. A hundred percent. But Russell Lee in an interesting way, kind of presents a unique case because as you were explaining, he went out with a mission. He went out with a purpose that was sort of assigned to him, which is to present the visual so-called evidence for the need, for this policy, from the new deal. Show these decision-makers what's actually going on out there. And even if it requires those photos to be produced, to be made, and he was still able to go with this intention which is an intention towards an audience. He had an audience that was policymakers, decision-makers and to still achieve artistry. I mean, every single one of us knows by sight, his famous photo of a woman, a mother with two small children who are kind of like hiding behind her shoulders and they're all covered in dirt. She looks like she's careworn and that something has gone terribly wrong in all of their lives. That's an arresting photo. And in my mind, it's a work of art. But as you're explaining, it's something that he went out to achieve. He went out to show an audience something specific. So, it's a very interesting case that he presents, and I'm not sure many people can actually manage to achieve what he did in that way.
John Dyer: Well, that gets back to this; the idea was to take pictures of poverty and you could take a million pictures of poverty and they could be ho-hum and kind of straightforward, matter of fact. And it's what all these FSA photographers did with the mandate they were given, did with the idea that transcended kind of just nuts and bolts of what they were being asked to do was. And that's the genius of those photographers that somehow the guy, the head of the agency was a guy named Roy Striker, and he knew enough to call on photographers to help him that he knew would come back with more than just what they were asked to do. Back to what we were talking about it's not the idea, it's what you do with the idea. They did something extraordinary with the idea of documenting poverty.
Now, that picture you're talking about, that's Dorothea Lange, and there's an interesting story behind that it was directed a little bit. I mean, she came through this camp and she saw this woman with the two little girls and didn't think about it much. She got into her car and girl a mile down the road and thought, wait a minute. I think there's something there. And she came back and walked up to the woman. Can I take your picture? And the woman wasn't particularly interested in having her picture made, and the little girls were standing there and Margaret Burke-White water brought her camera up, this great, big black camera. And the little girls were intimidated, they hid behind mom and mom had a little kind of an embarrassed look on her face. But that's not what comes through from the photo, especially within the context of which it was taken.
It is a little bit off the track, but that's why you have to admit that a photograph has no narrative ability, a photograph can't tell you what's going on in it. And people look at a photograph and they think that it's somehow it's telling them something about what was going on when the photographer snapped to shutter. I could very easily convince you that that photo was set up a year ago using central casting, using set directors in Hollywood, and these were hired actors and blah, blah, blah. There's nothing in that photograph that would tell you that it was taken in the thirties and under the circumstances, it really was, if you didn't have the photographer there.
So that's why photography to me, there's something that happens when you put a camera up and you snap the shutter. There's something that happens when that image is frozen that I find so compelling, I don't know what it is, but I can't get enough of it. But it's about the kind of simple use of the camera, not with a lot of manipulation inside the camera, not with a lot of manipulation afterwards, kind of back to your point about digital photography. There's so many ways you can influence digitally what an image ends up looking like with Photoshop and inside the camera, with color filters and all the rest of it. That doesn't appeal to me at all. I liked the simple way of a photo freezes, an instant of time and space. That's what camera does. That's all that I care about a camera doing.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah. That's a fascinating point because I think the sort of on the street just general notion of a photograph is that it is showing you what's happening there. And people can even refer, and we often do. We refer to photos and be like, look, there's a photo showing us what actually took place. Just look at it and use your eyes. And then same thing with even video, look at the video, it's showing us exactly what's happening, but what you realize is it doesn't. And the Dorothea Lange photo, I mean, I had no idea that that was the context that these little girls were just kind of shy and embarrassed, which makes sense. I mean, I've got children who are roughly that age and they are shy and embarrassed sometimes, and that's what they do.
You know, you look at that funny, like, oh, these poor children are in the midst of some bout of starvation. Maybe they were, maybe they weren't, we don't know, but we assume it to be the case from that photo. Just as with news, and this is something we see in photo journalism is that there are so many iconic photos we see, and we assume so much from a single image that we shouldn't assume because there's no grounds for that assumption to be made. And sometimes it's even the opposite of the case. I mean, I just published a book about the New York Times where I include as one instance in the early 200s when the rise of the second Intifada was just starting. And there was this photo published in the New York Times on the front page of a young man bloody, and behind him is a Israeli soldier about to strike him. And the caption was "An Israeli soldiers beating a Palestinian civilian." Turned out that what was actually happening was that the young Arab man in the photo was a Jewish American student, and the Israeli soldier was fending off a mob and actually saved his life. And the assumptions are just so revealing. It shows you so much about yourself as to what you have assumed about the photo. The photo is just kind of there, and it's like you're putting all this...
John Dyer: It's very insidious the way photography and video, like news photography and video is used for bad purposes, just like you're talking about. And that's the bad part of it is they're taking advantage of the fact that the photograph can't tell you itself what was going on when it was taken. It's all about how it's positioned, how it's captioned, what you're told to believe about it. And then you're right. I mean, you see a photograph, you think, "Well, this is the truth. This is the brutality of the Israelis or with the Palestinians." I've seen that so many times. There are videos of the Palestinians throwing rocks at an Israeli outpost. And then Israeli shooting rubber bullets back, or somebody, and then an ambulance rushes up and somebody who is mortally wounded is loaded on the ambulance and is driven away. And that's what you see. And then they say, yeah, but there's more of the video. And the ambulance moves up a hundred feet, the door opens and the guy, the wounded guy gets out and walks away. That pisses me off. I'm sorry. It's garbage people doing garbage things with taking advantage of the indeterminacy of a photograph. That is dishonest and it's dangerous.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah. And I think there's so much going on in those kinds of images, and that kind of imagery, which part of it is financial. You know, the famous saying in news that if it bleeds, it leads, that these images are sexy. They get people riled up. The news organizations love that. But even in very, very... this is something I've noticed a lot. In very subtle ways that if you have an article, a news article about a unsympathetic figure or a figure who was maybe neutral, but now has been caught doing something that the editors have deemed bad, or society's deemed bad. The photo they will use is not a neutral photo. They will use it a very, very unflattering photo. They use a photo that is trying to illustrate that person's moral failings or whatever it might be.
And you think to yourself, wait a second. Why are they showing me this person in this manner? Why not just give me some neutral file photo from whenever or wherever that is not editing the photo or editorializing the photo. Let me read the article, let me gain the facts. And I think this is kind of where photo journalism and journalism in general, just collide on this issue where people are saying, give me the facts. Don't give me your narrative, give me the facts. But I think that's something that photography for all the reasons that we're saying is uniquely susceptible to that.
John Dyer: You tend to believe what you see in the photo, and you don't know what's going on in the photo.
Ashley Rindsberg: Exactly, exactly.
John Dyer: You're saying that some of the pictures I've taken looked like they were taken in the 19th century. I mean, that's part of the reason I was attracted to that subject matter because you've got Cowboys right now in 2021 in south Texas that are practicing 19th century skills. What other professions do you know where you need to be an expert at 19th century skills, but they weren't, they were taken six, seven years ago.
Ashley Rindsberg: So on that point, I think this it's a good place to kind of start wrapping up, but I want to understand you know, why did you end up in Texas? What kept you in Texas? What is the relationship for you as a photographer with Texas because it seems to play such an important role in your work?
John Dyer: Well, I ended up in Texas, because my dad had a job that moved us all over the country and we ended up in Amarillo, Texas, which is the Northwestern, Texas when I was in high school. And from there, I got a scholarship to go to a college in San Antonio here. And then went from San Antonio to Austin to graduate school, and then married a San Antonio girl. And along the way I fell in love with the kind of - San Antonio is a kind of a crossroads, a cultural nexus of different, really strong influences. There's the whole Germanic, the German Czechoslovakian culturally and musically. And then the Mexican influence is very strong here and they all kind of crisp cross in and around San Antonio.
There's a wealth of interesting people doing interesting things that kind of get back to what I originally said that was just so fertile and so there to be photographed. That book I told you that I did on Conjunto music; I worked with a guy, a local musician, who's very much a kind of a Chicano, which means he's very invested in the culture of Texas with Mexican ancestry, and very kind of jealous about it. He helped me get permission to photograph a lot of these guys that an Anglo like me wouldn't normally have been able to do very easily because I'm an outsider. And after it was kind of almost over, I had a beer with him and I said, did it ever bother you that somebody like me was going into your world and photographing these musical masters in this musical genre, and he said, you did it. He said, nobody else was doing it and you did it, and it needed to be done. And I thought, man, that's a really good attitude to have. And in this age of xenophobia, you know, my tribe is not your tribe and we're distrustful of each other and cultural, what does it call where you're not supposed to make a taco because you're not... In San Antonio, it's the most culturally harmonious place I've ever been.
Ashley Rindsberg: Wow. I've actually never been to Texas.
John Dyer: Come visit, I'll take you around.
John Dyer: Yeah, I would love to. I like so many other people are really fascinated by Texas and I'd love to explore it more, so I think I'll take you up on that. I grew up in a border town, Mexican border town in America, which is San Diego. And there's sort of that similarity where you have so much influence from Mexico; music, food, language and it's something I always have appreciated and still do appreciated today because it's such a fascinating rich culture.
John Dyer: We've got just a minute or two left this, let me tell you about the most recent project I finished right before COVID. It popped into my mind this phrase, the edge of Texas, which that's not unique with me. People have used that term before, but I thought, wouldn't it be interesting to drive the perimeter of this state? Because if you go to East Texas over by Louisiana, it is totally different than it is in North Texas and West Texas and South Texas. And I ended up driving the whole perimeter, just taking pictures, just things that caught my eye. And all the way around, along the Rio Grande over by Caddo Lake, up by Oklahoma that kind of document how different this huge state is. I drove 4,400 miles. And I've got this body of work that really is - I've shopped at to see if there are publishers that want to do it. And photo books are hard because people don't buy them and they're really expensive to do. I've done books, I don't need to do another book, but that was the last big thing I've done and tremendously satisfying, and to kind of explore how big Texas is and how different it is from place to place.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah. It is immense. I mean, I think people will have some sense of its size, but it's just hard to fathom. And I'm living in Israel, which is this tiny little country, smaller than or roughly the size of New Jersey, interesting Texas is many multiples the size of this country and how much there is.
John Dyer: It's a pretty potent place.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah, that it is. But I hope people go check you out, check out your work. I think a good place to start is your website if I'm not mistaken, which is dyerphotography.com. You've got a little section there for the edge of Texas, you've got other photographs, you've got the Selena photographs up there, which anyone who not seeing those photos, it's like just get online and check them out because there are so incredible and amazing. And showing my view, a different kind of pop culture, pop culture from a different time that was a little more naive, a little more pure, not quite what it is today. But is there anywhere else that you want people to go find you, find your work?
John Dyer: No, that's pretty much it. I'd like to thank you, Ashley. You're very generous, man. I've enjoyed this. You need to talk about yourself a little bit too. You probably do in other venues, but you're a man of tremendous accomplishment too, and you should be very proud of yourself.
Ashley Rindsberg: Thank you so much, John. I do appreciate that. And like I said, check out John's website dyerphotography.com. And thank you, John. Thank you for your time. Thank you for being here. This has been really eye-opening, no pun intended, and I hope we talk again.
John Dyer: Yeah. Thank you very much. I appreciate it.