Interview: Sean Lotman, Photographer and Writer 

There is something inherently enduring about Sean Lotman’s work. Lotman is that nowadays-rare photographer who despite the trend toward digital photography still shoots using an old-school analog camera. His choice affects the look and feel of his work and it affects the way he approaches his work’s creation. Lotman does not hold on to analog photography for sentiment – or even aesthetics – alone; rather, he sees an analog camera as integral to his method. For Lotman, art-making is “risky,” it is something that requires skill as well as luck and a willingness to be in the moment. Analog enables such immediacy, such intimacy between the creator and the creation. “Art is the greatest clue to the self,” Lotman tells us, “It draws from talent, experience, and the subconscious.”

In his mid-thirties, the photographer and writer has experienced continents. Lotman has spent months in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe. In 2003, he moved to Tokyo and he currently lives in Kyoto. Through his extended travels, he has gained an affinity for the world and its various cultures and peoples that cannot be gained through the common cursory experience many Americans have with other cultures – whether it be through magazines or holidays. About America, Lotman informs us that the concept of the American Dream still runs strong in many parts of the world, where people still look to the United States as the best-packaged “vision of the good life.”

This spring we published Lotman’s photographic series “Young Americans” and his short story “Just Say Yes” – two works which explore the mythology of the American Dream and its resilience despite the reality of an increasingly global, fractured, and uncertain world economy and polity. Both the photographic series and the short story center on vivid characters -- fascinating individuals whose aliveness brush up against the image or page. You cannot look at one of these photographs or read this short story without feeling the energy exuded by the people Lotman has depicted. You also can’t escape the energy exuded by Lotman himself.

In our interview with Lotman, we learn a little about his fascinating explorations around the world, his views on art, culture and politics, and his fundamental belief in the resilience of humanity.  



You’ve described your photographic series “Young Americans” as an homage to the 1975 David Bowie song of the same name. In the song, Bowie repeats the refrain “s/he wants the young American.” Bowie seems to be describing a longing on behalf of many, perhaps the world, to be a part of a young America. What do you think is behind that longing and what do you think defines young Americans? 


Although we're well past our prime, to the majority of the world America still represents energy, inventiveness, and opportunity-- what personifies those qualities better than young Americans? The American Dream began as myth, enjoyed a brief run as reality, and has retreated back to myth. Unemployment is high, the jobs are gone to China and yet everybody still wants to feel important. We used to make cars, now we make blogs. Myths die hard and no country has yet completely toppled us in a vision of the good life (or at least marketed it so well as Madison Avenue). Call it myth, call it bullshit even, but for many people in all kinds of cultures, “American” continues to be synonymous with freedom and opportunity. For all the shame I feel at my government's actions abroad (not to mention the contempt it often has for its own people), I feel glad that many in the world yet believe in this beautiful association.

And how does your series capture that?

Ideally, my portraits are conveying the remnants of that Dream. That the men and women in my photographs have their whole lives in front of them and that it's going to be a hell of a beautiful ride.  Yeah, it's doomsday everywhere you look but somehow we're thriving anyways. We're moving on. And we're enjoying ourselves.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the subjects of photographs are real, live people, but in your work, it’s nearly impossible to look past the subjects’ individualities. Their belongings – books, hats, smiles – are so well-captured. The photograph seems to be about them, more so than about the image as a whole or a larger artistic idea. Who are the people you have photographed in the series? Are they strangers, friends, both?

Some of these people are very close friends. I've known John Gill ("Captain John Gill") since our college days in Santa Barbara. He's an adventurer and a sailor. I shot his portrait in a houseboat he built himself with recycled parts. Patrick too ("He Plays For Keeps") is a close friend and collaborator since Santa Barbara; he shoots publicity for Hollywood studios and has made for himself a glamorous lifestyle. I shot Patrick at his home, as I did Colin ("Philosophy and a Sandwich") and James ("Father Knows Better"), both terrific artists and simpatico dudes. You're right then that they complement their environment. The others were strangers encountered in public environments particular to their personalities. I was drawn to them – like all strangers I approach there was some je ne sais quoi about them.

And what about the people in your other work? Do you befriend your subjects before you take their image?

Sometimes. But I prefer not to. It's not easy finding the appropriate subject. Like music, painting, acting or writing, a certain kind of focus is inestimably valuable. Achieving that focus can be challenging. I have to commit to the act of photography but when I do I sense my visual relationship to the world reaching a heightened state. I can see -- for lack of a better word-- Tableau emerge from chaotic urban busyness. As do the characters. It's not enough to photograph an interesting person. A unique individual photographed in a dull context dilutes the power of the image. Of course, there's a lot of luck to all this. But the truth is if I'm not focused, the "scenes" do not emerge and worse, I do not feel the audacity to attempt the shot. I shoot with a fixed 35mm lens. I've no choice but to cross paths with my subject, confronting them with my camera. Sometimes I ask permission, sometimes I don't. I'm operating on instinct, on a feeling, and when it's there I don't think too much. I just move.

You have spent many months in different parts of the world. Have your travels made you view life differently?

Inevitably when you leave the environment and culture you've known all your life for personal frontiers, you evolve. You develop more compassion, empathy and the epiphany that for all the exoticism, these others are just like us. They're flawed but wonderful people. The American political class and its attendant media have declared a culture war on Islam. I spend a lot of time wandering residential neighborhoods in Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, and Jordan with my cameras. I'm often invited for tea and nearly always treated hospitably. Can you imagine an Egyptian in the suburbs of Connecticut ambulating with a couple of cameras? Do you think he would be invited into people's homes for coffee? Or would he be suspected of terrorism and hauled off for questioning faster than a pot of coffee could be brewed?

It seems that the government and media get away with their boogeyman rhetoric simply because the majority of Americans have never left the country. War with Iran would be absurd to anyone who's had the opportunity to visit. They would meet Iranians who just want to make a living for their family, who curse their government's idiocy and who have nothing against the American people.   

True empathy is often only facilitated through experience, which in the end, is the most important lesson in travel. But I also travel for the adventure. I love being the only foreigner in a strange town on the far side of the world. I love the unpredictability of it all. And the body and mind's openness in processing unique cultural environments. You're more fully alive. Traveling is being.

We’ve read elsewhere that you shoot with the Diana f+, an analog camera derivative of the 1960s box camera. Tell us more about your choice to use analog instead of digital photography.

My principle cameras are the Diana f+, which uses medium format, and Nikon f3, a 35mm camera (all of the photos presented in "Young Americans" are from the Nikon f3). There are aesthetic reasons I shoot analog, namely I like the look I get from film; instagram is doing a great job appropriating the look of cameras like the Diana but in the end it cannot be produced into something you can blow up and put on a wall. I feel quite ambivalent about hipstimatic's popularity-- I don't like its convenience or its inauthenticity but I think it creates value for photographers who shoot analog. I believe art should entail some tightrope-walking and I think using a filter on a photo taken with a smartphone isn't risky. In fact, it's downright bourgeois.

As I mentioned before, shooting well entails being in a zone. You see something, you photograph it once, maybe twice, you move on. You either got the shot or you didn't (once again the element of risk is at play). Like an actor or a musician, you're in the moment. Shooting with digital isn't like that. You take a picture, you look at the LCD screen, shoot two or three more, etc. You're removing yourself from your environment every few moments.  This affects the fluidity of the process.

In our perusal of the internet, we have come across your writing – in magazines, on your personal blog and in the form of your project “I Do Haiku You.” What are you able to express through writing that cannot be expressed through photography and vice versa?

The most important difference between photography and writing is immediacy. A photograph's humor, gravitas, beauty can be grasped in a moment whereas one must hunker down with a story to delve its potential. For me, writing a good story is more difficult than taking a good photograph. The process is so complex. Whereas my kind of photography is often situational-- I leave the house, find something interesting, shoot it--  writing a story means choosing an arbitrary moment in time, a point of view, and a stylistic language. The writer is overwhelmed by choice. When it gets to me, I leave the house with my cameras. The fresh air clears my head and I feel like I'm doing something productive. I'm very lucky to have photography in my life-- its wandering, improvisational, spontaneous process counterbalances the solitude and anxiety of the writer confronting the blank page.

When it comes down to it, photography and writing fulfill the same purpose-- they express self, though utilize different instruments and talents in doing so. To be good, they share the same necessities: they must be precise, true, and meaningful. Otherwise, why should anyone care?

In an article in Heso Magazine on Patti Smith’s memoir “Just Kids,” you write about the beautiful relationship between Patti and Robert Mapplethorpe before they became well-known artists. Near the end of the piece you write, “So what is a kid in New York City with paint on his hands and a tumblr site that no one visits supposed to take home from all this? It could happen to you too.” And in another article for Heso on the Lars Von Trier film Melancholia, you write: “Life on earth is not entirely evil and we are not necessarily alone in the universe. There are many reasons to believe in the Hollywood happy ending, the most important of which is that it suits a beautiful, fulfilling life.” What is your view on the importance of pursuing your art and your passion? Does it make for a more meaningful life? Is it a realistic life for everyone?

Why make art? Because life is so transitory. Days pass into nights in a blur. Things are bought, consumed and thrown away. Doing art is putting your personality-- who you are at this very moment-- and making something tangible out of it. Art is the greatest clue to the self. It draws from talent, experience, and the subconscious. But it must be drawn and that entails removing yourself from the outer world with its tweets and status updates and general distractions. It's not easy to do. In fact, it can be like hitting your head against the wall. Because drawing out the 'one and only you' can be a challenge, as it's easy to be influenced by others' work. Some people meditate. I write stories and shoot photos. Really, in my mind it's all the same thing-- escaping the present world and entering a place deep within where you discover your inner truth. 

It's not an easy path for the American artist. There's very little money in it so if you make art the focus of your life, it certainly entails stark economic choices. Of course, if you want to make art for money, you probably never will because the will to create is material rather than authentic. Or if you do succeed on this basis, it's unlikely that your art will survive the next cycle of fads.

But I don't think most people are in it for the money. They are genuinely interested in some kind of self-exploration and sharing that with the world. While I don't shoot digital photography myself, I certainly admire its democratizing effect. The proliferation of tumblrs, blogspots, and soundclouds is a very good thing. You can only become a more interesting person for the effort, especially when the effort is sincere. But its long-term benefits probably depend on personal expectations. Don't expect to get rich or famous. Don't let your ego be manipulated by "views," "faves," or "likes." The best art is rendered because it had to be. You don't have a choice in its creation. You are an enthusiastic messenger of the great creative ether from which you've managed to put a bit of it in a bottle. If it's enough that something hard-won and beautiful has been created, anything else that develops is a lovely surprise.

We hear that you are about to travel to Costa Rica and Guatemala. If you don’t mind, tell us a little about that trip and other future projects you have in store.

My fiancee and I are traveling to Central America on an assignment for TRANSIT, a Japanese variety of National Geographic, featuring wonderful photography and travel narrative. I'm quite lucky to be in the editor's good graces, especially as I'm the only foreigner who regularly contributes to them. I've been freshening up on my Spanish so that I'll be able to communicate in the countryside.

Beyond that, I would like to take a cross country road trip and really get to work on developing the “Young Americans” series. I also need to get back to work on a novel I've recently begun and, with a bit of luck, find a publisher for the one I've finished.


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