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A Brief Interview with Richard Max Gavrich

SM: Who are you?
RMG: Max, not Richard.

SM: What are you?
RMG: I yam what I yam.

SM: When are you?
RMG: Late, on what my friends like to call GFT (Gavrich Family Time).

SM: Where are you?
RMG: Always moving. I think I have a fixation with packing and unpacking boxes. I just recently relocated to Connecticut where I’m setting up a studio, darkroom, and gallery in the defunct Fuller Brush Factory. The company opened the plant in 1923 and boasted the space as “the largest household brush factory in the world”.

SM: Why are you?
RMG: What Keats described as “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Trying at least.

SM: Would one know how much her proximity to the Mississippi River informs life any more than what it would be like to not breath air? In David Foster Wallace’s essay This Is Water, Wallace opens with an allegory about fish…

“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”

…Wallace goes on to say, “The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.”

and finally concludes about life,

“It is about simple awareness—awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: ‘This is water, this is water.’”

SM: The most obvious parallel between Wallace’s essay and your photographic series is water. Not only literally but as thematically integral to the places you photographed along the Mississippi River. The title, Across the Brown River alludes to there being yet another place—perhaps a metaphorical place or some other time in the past or future, but somewhere on the other side of here and now. Although, it is not obvious from which side you are photographing or on which side your subject matter believe that they live. Across the Brown River most importantly suggests that to be aware is central to living especially amidst the banality of life. How important is it that we are conscientious of the here and now—that which is right in front of us and sometimes without our awareness or even our consent, that it informs our existence?

RMG: That’s very well put — a big claim but a keen observation. To add to your thoughts, there is a quote by the philosopher Meno that I have tacked here above my desk: 

“How will you go about finding the thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” 

RMG: I certainly believe in the importance of bearing witness to what stands before us (or as photographers, what we choose to stand before), while honoring that we may not know or understand what it is we are actually seeing, and may never. I return often to this passage by Robert Adams from Why People Photograph:

At our best and most fortunate we make pictures because of what stands in front of the camera, to honor what is greater and more interesting than we are. We never accomplish this perfectly, though in return we are given something perfect—a sense of inclusion. Our subject thus redefines us, and is part of the biography by which we want to be known.” 

RMG: I’ve come to think of my manner of working as of form of wrestling with an impossible goal, to reconcile the people and places I bear witness to and the photographs I make of or with them. As a person not originally from the South, my effort is not to try to define this place. Truth, I would argue, is not photography’s strong suit; that’s why I am not a documentarian. This does not mean we shouldn’t try to grapple with questions of sincerity, authenticity, “facts” — but instead try to articulate the beauty and strangeness and difficulty in addressing these questions, without trying to fully answer them. It’s a messy business, as it should be.

RMG: I search for photographs that, like good fiction, have within them kernels of reality, that unfold in unexpected ways. Description with a subjective slant may embellish while striving to go deeper and point to certain things, whether subtly or not so subtly. Narratives that borrow from life, in a broad sense, allow us to connect the realities of the present to those of the past.

RMG: Initially I didn’t set out to make a project about the Mississippi River, but looking at the photographs later led me to these connections. The group of images loosely unfolded over the past few years as I traveled back and forth from my home at the time in New Orleans, north up the Mississippi River to Memphis or south to Houma and the gulf. Rather than a theme or idea, I often begin with a certain tone, borrowed from music, writing, found objects, people I meet. Here, that tone emerged from a handful of passages by Flannery O’Connor. In one particular story, a boy returns to an unnamed river after a rogue baptism and is carried away, willingly and happily, by the current. O’Connor wrote about her own work:

“Distortion in this case is an instrument; exaggeration has a purpose… this is not the kind of distortion that destroys; it is the kind that reveals, or should reveal.”

RMG: In a retroactive way, I find that the words of writers and poets, especially those who have a lucid way of describing place, help me to cull and organize my photographs, to find parallel strains of meaning in stories and images, like a detective connecting one event to another. I use their words as a sort-of divining rod, a way to find water in the depths.