John Gossage

Where Have All the People Gone?

I rarely include people in my photographs.  In fact, I go to some length to ensure there are not included.

In this 2010 interview John Gossage (JG) and Lewis Baltz (LB) discuss why they don't include people in their photographs:

JG: ...unlike Jeff Wall, one thing I’m very sparing with is photographing people. Once you insert a person into the work, he or she become the protagonist and a lot of my books are at such low intensity that it throws everything off. I want the viewer to be the protagonist in the book. Like in The Thirty-Two Inch Ruler – no people occur except for the viewer.

LB: I think this is one thing we have in common: that the subject of the work is the person looking at it. If you want to get a little more Zen about it, the subject is necessary for the completion of the work.

JG: Yes.

LB: And the intellectual or imaginative engagement of the viewer is what makes the work finally a work. And if you interpose another human in the work, then he or she becomes the subject, which I think is too simplistic.

JG: I think it’s to be used incredibly sparingly and delicately.
— John Gossage (JG) and Lewis Baltz (LB)

Last Light, Bittern Lake, 2004

Prairie Waters

The warm glow is probably the first thing you notice in this photograph.  Equally important is the feeling of being alone in a vast space.  A figure would change that.  It would become a photograph about a person standing in the landscape.  Including myself in the photograph (something that seems to be increasingly common in our selfie-obsessed culture) would shift the emphasis from the viewer to the photographer.

There's also the impact of figures on scale.  Its common advice to include a figure in landscapes to provide a sense of scale.  But I want the scale to be ambiguous.  This scene could almost be an aerial view.  I consider that a feature.

Loops, Edmonton, 2006

Winter City

More care is required to avoid people in urban landscapes.  Its one of the reasons I photograph in-between places and visit during off hours.  In "Loops" there's still that feeling of being alone.  We can consider the landscape rather than wondering why a person is out in an otherwise abandoned school yard on a frigid winter day.  We might ponder why a city with long, cold winters seems to double-down on the suffering by favouring muted, windowless buildings.  

I also find vehicles can behave like figures.  When they are being driven, they become proxies for people.  But even parked vehicles can become the subject of the photograph.  Still, vehicles are a common feature of urban landscapes.  In the last few years I have started to carefully include them in some photographs.  They are usually more like architectural features -- a part of the photograph but not its subject.

In the scene below, we see a used car lot designed to both attract and repel people.  We observe a clean interior and a garbage strewn exterior.  The vehicles motivate the situation and play a supporting role in the visual structure.  But the emphasis is on the ribbons and fence.  The presence of people is implied through their choices.  We are invited to consider these choices. 

Used, Vancouver, 2013

City of Glass

There are certainly many excellent bodies of work where people in the photographs play a primary or significant role.  They are just different from the kind of work I choose to make.