I plan to publish a series of brief interviews with a number of artists, photographers and others in related fields. Given the weight of recent world affairs, I chose to begin with someone working with issues of war and peace and attendant social issues. In the future, I’ll be including a wide range of photographic work as well as the people making it.
Over the course of my editorial career, I had the pleasure to work with photo journalist Marissa Roth on several occasions, primarily in accessing photographs from her book “Real City: Downtown Los Angeles Inside/Out” on Angel City Press. Her documentary work has taken her far beyond her California roots, however, from Kosovo to Pakistan. Roth was part of The Los Angeles Times Pulitzer Prize winning photography staff covering the 1992 Los Angeles riots. While working for publications such as The New York Times, Newsweek, Time and Paris Match she has photographed earthquakes, an attempted coup in the Philippines, as well as the first post-communist elections in Hungary.
What made you pick up a camera in the first place?
My parents were the ones who formatively gave me a geo-political and cultural world view, as they were European – Hungarians who fled what would become The Holocaust, arriving in the U.S. in November of 1938. Art and culture were always present in our home, and photography arrived early into my life, brought to our doorstep weekly in Life, Look and National Geographic Magazines. I came of age in the 1960’s and was very aware of the war in Vietnam, the political scene, the women’s movement, and the cataclysmic social changes. I was a bit too young to actually participate, so it was through photography that I learned about the greater world which kept me rapt and aware. I think it also appealed to something deeper that I didn’t know then, that I am an adventurous spirit, as well as, a social commentator.
As a child, I had always been creative – drawing and painting. My Mom had a Kodak Brownie and then an Instamatic camera that she loved to take pictures with, and she was quite good. I permanently appropriated her Instamatic when I was about 10 years old. I took to the camera immediately and loved the feel of it in my hands, the fun of it – I took pictures of my friends and family in action – and the immediacy of it. I have an impatient and speedy temperament, so photography as a medium appealed to me over the laborious nature of painting. In high school, I took a photo class, learned how to process film and develop prints, and was hooked.
Can you recall a particular photographer or artist you found to be profoundly influential in your own image making? Are there specific works?
My first formal experience with imagery probably started with a trip to Europe, sort of a “Grand Tour”, when I was 13 years old.
My parents took me to a number of classical cities, Rome, Florence, Venice, Paris, London, Vienna and Budapest, and it seemed like we visited every museum and cathedral possible. I remember being profoundly moved by Michaelangelo’s “David” sculpture at the Uffizi Museum, and his half-finished pieces where torsos were beginning to emerge from blocks of marble. In Paris, seeing room after room of incredible Impressionist paintings for the first time also opened me up to the possibilities for interpretation and composition, namely the work of Paul Gauguin, who visually pushed the edges of a canvas.
During college, I assiduously started looking at the work of many photographers, and was immediately enamored by the work of Minor White. I loved how he saw abstraction in reality. I came to know the work of a number of photographers that I had an affinity for, specifically Margaret Bourke-White, Bruce Davidson and Mary Ellen Mark. Their work presented me with a potential path, where I could combine my desire to tell meaningful stories and keep a sense of creativity. When I became a photojournalist
working for daily newspapers, it was a challenge to maintain a high level of individuality while producing a high output of assignments. Bruce Davidson’s “Subway” book was a revelation to me, as was Mary Ellen Mark’s, “Ward 81”. I also loved the work of Jacques Henri Lartigue, André Kertesz and Richard Avedon, among others.
I think growing up in Los Angeles, with it’s dramatic light, which can be hot or diffused, definitely influenced me on a subconscious level. It taught me how to master light and shadow. Chiaroscuro is how the Renaissance painters described that dramatic interplay of dark and light, and it’s a key visual element that I love and incorporate in many of my images, that continues to speak to me viscerally.
Is there recent work that made you wish you’d done it first?
I suppose I am at a point in my career where I am very grateful for the path that my photography has led me on. It has been and continues to be a very interesting road. I’ve realized and accepted that I can’t be everywhere and shoot everything; maybe that’s what maturity brings. So, I try to use my time and resources to do projects and stories that speak to me personally. That said, the photo story that Paolo Pellegrin did for the New York Times Magazine on the Guantanamo Bay detention center was one that I would have loved to have photographed.
Each shoot has it’s own chemistry: whether there was a strong human connection or you were able to make photographs that had a tremendous impact. We rarely get to hear those stories and I’d like to know your story of an exceptionally gratifying shoot?
When I was living and working for the L.A. Times in The Philippines in 1988, I was on an assignment with the foreign correspondent doing a story about the Vietnamese “boat people”, refugees who had fled Vietnam for political and economic reasons. In many instances, they took rickety boats that landed on the shores of the Philippines, if they made it. Many people perished on the journey. There were two main refugee camps in the Philippines, one on the southern island of Palawan, which was for refugees who were in transit – where they had family members or sponsors in the U.S., and were waiting for their visas while studying English and learning American customs. The other camp was near Manila, in Bataan. These refugees were in a type of limbo. They had no American connections, and couldn’t go back to Vietnam. The reporter and I went to the Palawan camp first, then to Bataan. During a lengthy interview there, between the reporter and a refugee, I decided to walk around this particular part of the camp, just photographing refugees, noting their names and specific details of their encampment. A woman with 3 Amerasian teen-age sons caught my eye. I photographed them, and found out that they had been at the camp for 8 years, basically stuck without any means of moving on.
In those days, I shot with Tri-X film and would process it in my tiny darkroom in Manila and made prints, which were then electronically transmitted to the photo desk at the Times. I printed about 16 images that I felt illustrated the story. The paper selected six images to publish. About a week after the story ran, my reporter handed me a message from his editor that said, when the story appeared, the paper received a call from a Vietnamese man who was living in Westminster. He had seen the article, recognized the woman with the three sons as his sister, who he thought had died during the war in Vietnam. He was able to vouch for her, which enabled her and her sons to get immediate visas to immigrate to the U.S. Inadvertently reuniting this family taught me the profound lesson of how one image can directly change people’s lives.
Is there a new body of work that you’re feeling good about?
At the moment I am finishing two extensive book projects that are both very dear to me. The first, “One Person Crying: Women and War”, is a 25-year global photo essay that documents and addresses the immediate and lingering effects of conflict on women.
The second, is a book on Tibet (“Infinite Light), which is in color, shot with Kodachrome. It is more of an impression of what it feels like to be in Tibet, rather than a political statement or social study. I call it my love letter to Tibet.
Marissa Roth lives and works in Los Angeles and beyond.