Interview with Michael Chovan-Dalton
Michael Chovan-Dalton has his MFA from Columbia University and his BFA from the School of Visual Arts, NYC. He is a professor and coordinator of Photography and Digital Imaging at Mercer County Community College in New Jersey, the JKC Gallery Director, and he is the creator of the podcast thePhotoShow.org.
Visit Michael's Website to see more of his personal photographic work.
First I would love to know how you got involved with photography? What inspired you to pick up the camera for the first time?
I think my interest in photography actually started when I was about 8 years old. My father had bought my sister and I some disposable 110 cameras and I started what would be my first long term project, photographing my favorite tree in front of my house during each season for a year. Now keep in mind I lived in Florida at the time, so realistically there were only two seasons, summer and mild winter, so the tree may not have looked all that different from season to season.
But I really became serious about photography in high school. My cousin Jeannine loved her high school photo class with her instructor, Mr. Hall, and I had a free elective when I was a junior so I signed up for the class and I loved it. I could not photograph enough, I became one of those people who always had a camera around their neck. Even when I went against the advice of my favorite math teacher, Mr. Paolantonio who thought I should pursue photography, and went to Lehigh University to study engineering, I still found myself photographing all around Bethlehem (Pennsylvania) and using the campus police darkroom to make prints.
Your project Bethlehem caught my eye, of course, as I myself am from Israel and honestly, I have probably never seen with my own eyes some of these places so I look at it also as an outsider. Tell us your experience in the city? What was the best part of the experience?
Photographing the 1st Intifada in Bethlehem was a life changing experience. For the first two weeks I actually had to wrestle with culture shock because I would go to the West Bank, photograph a demonstration, get tear-gassed, and then return to my West Jerusalem apartment and watch bad American television. I had a tough time reconciling my life with theirs. It took a while to settle down and to get off the adrenaline rush, but with the help of two friends, Samir and Mahmoud, I was able to make better connections with the demonstrators and their families and to try and see beyond just the demonstrations. I would later sponsor Samir and his wife to come live in New York and I am still in touch with him today.
In many of your projects you really capture New York city in various ways – from it’s people to it’s bridges. What about this city captivates you the most? Can you talk more about these projects? In specific Staten Island, Crossings and the High-line. What was the motivation behind these project? How was the work process like?
These projects you mentioned and also the work I do now in New Jersey, all have one thing in common, and that is I follow a route with some specific rules in order to show what a place looks like because it was created or affected by the construction of a major artery of commerce and/or commuting. New York City and parts of New Jersey are places that are in a constant state of construction where entire neighborhoods, once industrial, are valued, or razed and re-planned, based upon of their location or proximity to a train, a bridge, or an on-ramp. New York City is different from northern New Jersey in that the bridges don’t really change, but the neighborhoods are constantly changing around them. In New Jersey, there are neighborhoods, football fields, and strip malls that follow the trajectory of a non-extant rail line or canal and brand-new developments that are built in conjunction with a new Turnpike entrance or a new light-rail station. I think this idea of the value of a place and the changing priorities of a system based upon commerce and invention fascinate me because I have never personally identified with a place that I think of as home. I have always felt a compulsion to pull up stakes and move to something new. It’s a compulsion that I have to fight now because I have a family and I would like my kids to grow up with a sense of home, but it is definitely a persistent component of my work.
My method of photographing is almost always the same and it satisfies my nomadic tendencies. I walked the path of the High Line, I stopped at every train station on Staten Island, I mapped out every NYC bridge that crossed a borough or crossed into New Jersey, and more recently, I followed the path of the Morris Canal in New Jersey, and now I am following the Passaic River.
Some people might know you more as the creator of The Real Photo Show podcast. This podcast is completely dedicated to photography and photographers. You have interviewed many artists and at this point in time as I write you have 67 episodes. What made you start this project? Why do you think it is important?
So I have an incredibly long commute to work. I drive about 110 miles a day, four days a week, for almost eleven months of the year. To fill that time, I started to listen to podcasts in the car and I would start to answer some of the questions that were posed to the guests as if I were the guest. The rhythm of the conversations became so ingrained in my psyche that I began to play out my own show in my head. After a year or so of listening, I really began to crave making a show and I realized that I have been in this business so long now, that I know a lot of photographers, or at least I knew some photographers who knew a lot of photographers and I could build upon that.
I know my show will never be as large as a show that features celebrities, but I love the idea that I am creating a snapshot of what photography looks like now in my lifetime and the overlapping lifetimes of my guests who are of older and younger generations. I think of the show as entertaining and informative for current listeners and as an archive or a reference for future listeners.
The podcast gathered together many artists, many local to the city, where they share their stories, work, passions and philosophy about photography and the photo world. What was the one thing you learned so far from running the podcast?
The conversations have been so rich that it would be difficult to say that I learned one thing, but maybe I would say in general that the art world is actually very small and most of us are on the same ship, much of the time it feels like we are riding in steerage and trading our services for a room, like a comedian on a cruise, but sometimes we get a glimpse of an upper deck suite. Just like making photographs, success comes in the midst of a lot of failure and it is not the driving force of the guests I have had on the show, it is typically the work itself that drives my guests. Success, such as having a show, getting a grant, or publishing a book, is just a nice night in a room with windows before you head back to the lower deck.
In addition to the podcast you are also running JCK gallery in Mercer Community College in Trenton New Jersey. Tell us a little about your experience as the curator? How do you choose the work that is featured? What is most important to you to convey through the gallery and it’s featured work?
The gallery for me is a lot like the podcast in that it allows me to provide a space for photographers to build community and to show support for one another.
It is also a different experience from the podcast in that it is very specific to Trenton, New Jersey. I am part of a larger effort to create an arts corridor in Trenton. Many of the artists who have shown at the JKC Gallery were also guests on the podcast and it seemed natural to invite photographers that I was already interested in having on the show. I also try to mix bringing artists to Trenton with showing regional artists so that the gallery is seen as a venue for showing what is happening in and around Trenton as well as a destination for artists who typically show in cities better known for their art spaces.
What would you consider to be your biggest success? And what would be your biggest failure? What do you think you’ve learned from each?
So far, I think my biggest success has been figuring out how to have a life with my family and to continue to photograph. I love teaching, doing the podcast, and running the gallery, and all of those things energize me and my own work, but I also have an incredibly understanding partner, my wife Cynthia, who helps me with the time to do all of these things, and I have two great kids who play sports, take guitar lessons, and go to dance lessons, so we tag-team their schedules and we each do as much as we can.
My biggest failure is probably sitting on my work for way too long and not showing it to enough people, but that is turning around and the podcast has helped me join a community of people that includes you and Yoav, where we all actually enjoy providing a space to help promote each other.
What would you give as advice to younger artists and photographers that are reading this? What tip can you give from your experiences?
My advice is to find your community, find the people who interest you, not solely or even necessarily because you like their work, but who interest you in how they live their lives and create their work, and who are also interested in how or what you do. You should also try to go to receptions and book-signings but go with a friend so you are not the awkward weirdo just hovering back and forth from the wine table to the photos on the wall. By the way, if you see that weirdo, come say hello his name is Michael and of course he has a podcast.
Finally, What are you working on these days? Any projects or news you would like to share?
This summer I am the juror for an open call for photography from the Noyes Arts Garage in Atlantic City. It’s part of the Noyes Museum operated by Stockton University. Of course, I will be recording the podcast all summer long, maybe doing an episode or two in Philly. I will be hanging the summer show at the JKC Gallery in August. The next artist is Ryann Casey, a great photographer and art history/photo professor, her work deals with the recent loss of national parkland partially narrated through personal loss. I am still in the fairly early stages of photographing the winding path of the Passaic river and I am in serious talks with a publisher about the Staten Island work. My son and I are building a soap box derby car for an upcoming race, and finally, this summer I am scanning massive amounts of film from all my older work which is an incredibly boring and slow process that requires a lot of music, podcasts, coffee, and wine.