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Interview with photographer A. N. Quittner

A.N. Quittner was born in New York City in 1964 and grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. The rural beauty and kindness of the people he saw in Reading as a child their simplicity and decency made a strong and indelible impression upon him which greatly influenced his artistic vision. In September of 2019 he met a professional photographer who told him that the fundamental principle of photography in one simple phrase is: Fill the frame. When he said these words something extraordinary occurred within him and Adam began taking 500-700 pictures a day.


A.N. Quittner


A Statement of Purpose

Life is Beautiful—a single work in many volumes

Life is beautiful. How can one say such a thing? How is it possible that a man can take his seat upon a crowded city bus with these words emblazoned on his baseball cap and not be laughed at? And better yet, how is it possible that a man seated on that very bus can point a camera at this same man and take a picture of him and produce a work of art that seems to reflect the light of truth? Is life not rather a vile tragedy? Is life not rather something so utterly pointless and vain and full of sorrow and unspeakable suffering and shaded with every shade of human misery imaginable? When the great master, Shakespeare, mentions: “The heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”—has there ever been a single human being who read or heard these words and did not know exactly what he meant? And yet: Life is beautiful! It is a Truth so fundamental and universal that to deny it one must be void of sense and filled with misanthropic hatred for all mankind. Because every individual is aware to some degree that in spite of all empirical evidence to the contrary, there is at the core of existence something quite extraordinary and vibrant and joyful and divine. A man who is merely honest must see that while all is consumed in the flames of life’s fire, nonetheless the human spirit endures and is not consumed. And it is the purpose of all which presumes to call itself art, in whatever form it may take, to show the veracity of this fundamental truth and its permeation into every facet of human existence down to the most infinitesimal detail..

As for my future plans as a photographer, I shall not be venturing into war-torn areas of the world(though I have seen such places). I do not propose to do anything exceptional at all. I shun the extraordinary and focus on the mundane and un-extraordinary—upon that which the majority of folks walk past and do not notice. The greatest lesson I have learned from nearly 40 years of wandering the planet is that it is necessary first to be an observer of human nature and nature in general and then an artist. For any art which is not based fundamentally on nature and pure observation is not art but a vanity and a pretension just as any art which limits itself exclusively to the mere reflection of nature is dull. There must be some authentic effort to capture that spontaneous millisecond in human action which places Man not at the periphery of creation but at the very center.

I would like to focus whatever talent I have, and understanding, upon the creation of something showing life in all its multifaceted beauty. And to reveal this vision at its very origin and root which is always fresh and pulsating and not at the dead end of all its trials and failures. And to hold up for all to see: a living testimony saying, “Here gentlemen, is an honest reckoning of what I have seen. This was my vision! Here you are!”. I have already embarked upon this adventure and it will occupy me for the remainder of my life. Life Is Beautiful, the work I envisage, will have many volumes. Volume one, DC: The Shining City, is nearly complete and it is the photojournalistic capturing of the most beautiful city I have yet had the privilege to behold: Washington, D.C. With all her gorgeous monuments and architecture and her warm-hearted citizenry. Now I hope to turn my eyes towards that great continent: Europe. I see Paris as forming the second volume of Life is Beautiful and I see it as the natural extension of my overall vision. DC was after all designed by the Parisien architect Pierre L’Enfant. France! Our compatriots in revolution against injustice and tyranny. Our brothers in the great effort to bring a more enlightened government into existence. Upon whose shore our fathers risked their lives only recently to free that nation from the horrible Nazi reign of terror. The country who respected our achievements to such a degree she bequeathed to us that torch of Liberty which still shines in New York Harbor. There is such a kindredness of spirit between our vision of justice and in our cultural aspirations. And Paris has been the nurturing home of many American artists even before World War Two. And has often recognized in our countrymen their peculiar genius even before we ourselves could see it. I see Paris as forming the next volume of Life Is Beautiful and I also see pursuing this project across Europe into the great Arabic nations beyond.

Quittner
White Dog in Sunlight

Where did you grow up? How is the nature and people like?

I grew up in a small town in southeastern Pennsylvania in Reading about halfway between Philadelphia and Harrisburg. The Reading of my childhood was almost folkloric in its beauty and culture. In the 1960s Reading was in many ways 50 years behind the times. Only by the 1980s the leveling and homogenizing and lethal effects of the computer age eventually wiped out the unique cultural phenomenon of a small secluded semi-rural semi industrial town like Reading. 

I grew up seeing many things that had already disappeared from society. Like the family pediatrician who came to visit the child who was sick and who stayed an hour to console my mother by playing classical violin and sharing his latest purchases of antique bottles he had a passion for collecting. There was a local bakery that delivered fresh bread to the house each morning and the local dairy still had trucks to deliver deliciously cold milk in the winter. A local family owned chocolate factory provided everything a child could dream of and the proprietress loved to spoil us with free samples . A tailor came to our house to make alterations on newly bought clothing. And everyone was kind. Everyone smiled and adored children and I grew up in a world that loved me as much as I loved in return. It was a world where sincerity and honesty and goodness was the rule. 

America was at the peak of its post-war affluence and no one suspected it would ever change. I grew up with the solid unshakable belief that human beings were by nature good and decent and well meaning. And this belief has only grown over time. And the breathtaking natural beauty of rural Reading with her profusion of lilac trees and gorgeous dark red rose bushes her flocks of grazing sheep on the nearby country hills the cows and horses all served as a model for truthfulness which I have never abandoned: if it isn’t both simple and beautiful at the same time it can’t be the truth. As a result I have remained simple in my comprehension of truthfulness and have deeply held beliefs about God and the goodness of his creation which have only strengthened over time. I grew up in a world abounding with love and human tenderness and this has been the basis my entire life has rested on until this very day. 

Life Is Beautiful

How do you think your childhood and teenage life influenced your life/perspectives? 

Although my childhood was a very happy one my teenage years were not. It would require a whole volume to explain why. But briefly I saw a lot of tragedy both at home and in the world in these years. As the golden post-war years of American affluence disappeared so did the affluence in my father’s home. If you would have told my father and his friends many of whom were well off private business owners back in 1975 that in less than 15 years all the businesses would be closed and Reading would become a burned out hell hole of drugs and violence they would have laughed. But that is precisely what happened. And as a witness to this change I was devastated by the loss of such a beautiful world. I saw my father lose everything he owned down to the last penny. And I saw his friends thrown into bankruptcy and all the while the city of my childhood disappeared and in its place a hopeless world of unemployment and despair and for a consolation the sterile new world of Microsoft Windows and the internet. 

I can’t go into more details here but I do know what its like to be in a state of catatonic shock lying motionless and speechless in a mental hospital bed. And I do understand now, although I didn’t then, that this happened for a very good reason. I am lucky I had the inner strength to work through these difficult years and I am a happy person today but the experience was harrowing. It did however make me a stronger person and give me a healthy sense of compassion for even the least fortunate the homeless the poor and the oppressed. Really I was born with a sense of social justice but this trial by fire only made this trait in me more profound. 

Quitter
DC Metro Gallery Place


Why do you want to focus on the mundane and un-extraordinary instead?

I live currently in Washington DC. And I have lived here for almost 4 years. It is an extraordinary town even magical I would say and it has been here that I have learned to become a photographer. My “stomping grounds” really. But in becoming a photographer in such an historic city I have learned it is not the obvious things which compose a great picture. On the contrary, it is the so-called “every day life” the quotidian of DC that accounts for almost all my successful pictures. I have seen over these years the tourists with their cameras taking the obligatory pictures of the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, etc. And why not? They are beautiful monuments(although Mark Twain, the great truth-sayer, said that the Washington Monument looks like a boiler-room chimney). And I have seen journalists with $10,000 worth of equipment running across the National Mall to take a picture of some historical moment. I have seen the protests that rocked the city back in June. And I have also seen that underneath this fascinating historical layer that definitely is a part of DC, there is a wonderful and vibrant life which goes on almost unnoticed and that it is here primarily that I have fixed my lens and focused my attention because to me this is where the true life of DC is. What others walk by and ignore on the way to the great historical places, becomes for me the center of the universe. Obviously the arrival of COVID has greatly affected all this. But before the terrible pandemic shut down DC, the streets on any given night were electric with activity and there was a genuine spirit of excitement and good-will that had nothing to do with the senate or the government or even history for that matter. Unlike NYC where everyone seems angry about something, the general attitude in DC is friendly warm and playful. I like this very much and it provided me with an excellent environment to learn how to become a street photographer. To me as a street photographer, the great architectural wonders that abound in the national capital were more problematic than obligatory. I certainly wanted to take pictures of the greatest of them but it became a question of how. How can one take a picture of the Lincoln Memorial and have something in the end that doesn’t look like a postcard? And I found the answer to this question was simple: Don’t take a picture of the Lincoln Memorial. Just take a picture of something beautiful occuring at that particular moment and if the Lincoln Memorial happens to be in the picture all the better! And I have discovered that this “indirect” approach is quite successful. My best photographs of the monuments in DC have always been merely incidental to taking a picture of something else at the time. 

And I would like to point specifically to a picture which is part of my submission to JaamZIN and use it as an example of what I am trying to describe. I mean my picture of the Lincoln Memorial in the rain with 3 ducks flying by. This is one of my favorite pictures. I had my camera on a tripod and I was focused on the Memorial and as soon as I became aware of those ducks to my right coming in for a landing(I could hear there quacking and the flapping of wings) I hesitated for a moment until they became part of the composition and I got two birds with one stone(actually 3!) so to speak. A great picture of the ducks and of the Lincoln Memorial at the same time. In fact the ducks almost upstage the memorial and this is exactly what I wanted. The Lincoln Memorial seems almost ghostly and dream-like and this is exactly its beauty and charm and something not easy to capture directly.

Quittner
Lincoln Memorial with Ducks

"How do you see Paris? And what are your plans for the near future?

Paris for me is the next step. Really, my work here in DC has been nothing but a preparation for Paris. Because here in DC I have been forced to find a way to present the most photographed city in America in a new unique and fresh way and I will carry my understanding over to the most photographed city in the world. And for me Paris is the gateway to Europe. I have had a lifelong dream to go to Europe and now for personal reasons the opportunity has presented itself. But I have a feeling Paris will occupy my attention for years to come. I will return to DC at some point, perhaps not on a permanent basis,because DC is really my true artistic home. Now I have the necessary experience to show perhaps a new perspective to a city, Paris, photographed by some of the greatest photographers that ever lived. I see also that what I have done here in DC is very unique and in fact unrivalled. The breadth and scope of what I have documented on film is massive. In a mere 8 months I have taken around 100,000 photographs of DC and of those there are probably 1000 that I would be quite satisfied to see become a book or hung in a gallery. It will take me years to sort through them all but what I have put aside already from this mass of photographs is something I feel will have historical value. I think I was just the right person in the right place at the right time. Currently I am the only one who can see the nature of the final product and what it contains but as others begin to show an interest I am certain what I have done will make people happy. This alone makes me happy. It is perhaps the greatest success in my life so far and I feel this work is a truly inspired one. So in terms of the near future I see hopefully publishing my work the first volume of Life is Beautiful DC: The Shining City. I look forward to working with analog cameras and experimenting with new ways to print out my photographs. I recently found a company in Boston that can make silver gelatin prints from digital files and the results are amazing. To me the image is worthless until it is printed out and framed. The mere digital presence on a computer screen is nothing. It is lifeless until it is impressed on paper and tangible. I also plan to continue writing, and have all this time been writing , poetry. I am experimenting in creating visual displays pairing together my photographs and my poetry in an interesting and illuminating way rather than in traditional book form. Art and the continued pursuit of admiring and making beautiful things, to celebrate God’s creation: from this I shall not cease until I have ceased from this wondrous experience called Life.

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Interview with photographer A. N. Quittner Reviewed by JaamZIN on 9:20:00 AM Rating: 5
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