© 2002, Steve Gottlieb, All Rights Reserved
Steve Gottlieb's photographs
are bits of life that have vanished from our world forever--structures
emptied of any signs of human existence, fragmented testimonials of
our past. Gottlieb and I are sitting in my Boston studio looking through
his latest book, Abandoned America. We come upon the photograph of an
empty room, its peeling paint and partially demolished ceiling presenting
a strange mélange of colors. He wonders aloud. "What could
have made someone clear out everything? There's not a bedspring
or faded newspaper, a broken doll or a half-eaten jar of peanut butter.
It's as though someone attempted to expunge evidence of a crime."
In another image taken in a
remote and deserted reach of the Sierra Mountains in Bodie, California,
an outhouse leans precariously in the snow. It is a visual poem of intense
melancholy, the rich patina of the weathered wood contrasting with the
pristine and desolate wilderness.
His subjects are often commonplace and there is a tribute to Walker Evans
in the work, though most of Gottlieb's images are in color. "The
likeness is in the pronounced feeling of Americans on the move, of lives
hastily transported to another place," he says, "a profound
emptiness. I admired Evans and if you asked me who wouldyou most want
to sit down and share your work with, I would say Walker Evans. In terms
of his capture of architecture, geometric shapes, and history, he stands
in a class by himself."
The Impetus To Record
Gottlieb talked of his experiences, the places he chose to travel and
the momentum that lay behind a photograph of a gingerbread house, its
roof covered with moss, an old Packard automobile factory where the last
car came off the line over 50 years ago, or a colorful, abandoned truck
with a bullet hole in the window, partially hidden in an overgrowth of
weeds the words "Not For Sale" scrawled on its door.
As Gottlieb explains in the
forward of Abandoned America, the magic moment is "a combination
of when the esthetics please me and when the subject seems to transport
me to another place, a historical place. Even though there are no people
there, like on the cover shot, I could sort of feel someone driving that
"The ultimate pleasure is taking you on a trip. Like great movies
or books, pictures take you to another place. I don't date them
because I want them to be as timeless as possible. Though I was a history
major in college, I don't want to live in a different time. I just
want the power to visit: like H.G.Wells' Time Machine--one
day I'm in the 1880s, then the Grapes of Wrath, then Arthur Rothstein's
pictures, a shack with the father and son in the dust bowl, the WPA era,
Adams country, the feeling of the Farm Security--it's my little
The Evolution Of His
Gottlieb, who has been photographing since he was 12 years old, also served
as chief model to his father, a professional photographer. Though he was
comfortable around cameras, he decided to find his own route in life.
Upon graduating from Columbia College and Law School, he practiced law
in Washington for 10 years. He remained, however, a photographer at heart
and would wander the city and take photographs. After amassing a large
collection of prints, the thought occurred that the collection might warrant
a book. Fortunately he found a publisher and in 1984 Washington: Portrait
of a City was in print, soon to be followed by the well-received American
Icons. A new and revised printing on Washington is due out this year.
"Hey, Do A Book..."
Though many photographers find rusty trucks and old factories irresistible
material, sales of such subjects, even in stock, were nil for Gottlieb
though at the time he was selling huge amounts of stock. The tides turned
when an Art Director was rummaging through Gottlieb's files eight
years ago while the photographer was shooting in his studio. "Hey,
these are cool," he said. "You ought to do a book on this
Gottlieb had previously sent his book American Icons to Kodak and they
had liked it. When they saw Abandoned America they decided to put up a
major collection of the images on the Kodak web site and invited the photographer
to Rochester to talk to their employees about his career. "Loosely
speaking," Gottlieb says, "I am now part of the Kodak team
and my work is hanging in the office of the Chairman of the Board."
The subtle color in most of
Gottlieb's photographs goes along with the feeling of things that
are old. "There is a lot of color we don't see and we translate
in our minds what we think we are seeing. We look at wood and see brown
and don't see the bluish tint that is there. In one image of a coalmine
shed it was the lush iridescent blue that attracted me and prompted me
to photograph. Many people who look at my work think I am a master in
Photoshop. Though I am not tied to the notion of capturing a scene just
as it is, I am apt to workin Photoshop only to remove anything that is
distracting or superfluous or to what I think destroys the essence of
Gear For The Road
For most of his work Gottlieb uses Nikon cameras and lenses ranging from
14-500mm along with three zoom lenses with focal lengths from 20-200mm.
He also carries a Mamiya 645 medium format camera with lenses ranging
from a 24mm fisheye to 300mm and a Widelux 35mm camera with a moving lens
encompassing 140Þ. "Since I don't always have time to
remain in a location for just the right timing many of my shots are taken
with flash to accommodate the existing light. Kodak film has remained
my choice over the years and I currently use Ektachrome 100VS that provides
me with the rich and vibrant color while the Ektachrome 100SW offers me
a lovely warm cast. Both have superfine grain structure that gives me
very sharp enlargements." Gottlieb does his own 13x20 prints on
an Epson printer.
Although there is enough fodder for another article I must mention that
Gottlieb takes pride in the fact that he meticulously designs his own
books. "To me the single most important decision the designer makes
is the sequencing of the pictures. I see it as a piece of music. It is
like the notes have to fall in place. I look to set up a rhythm--I
have lived these pictures and I know the feeling I want to generate and
have viewers feel that familiarity and embrace it and say, `Hey,
that reminds me of the car we used to have when I was a kid!'"