Lou Reed takes his best shots

The rock legend discusses his digital photography and Warhol before suddenly asking, "If the sun was an oboe, what would you do?"

Published January 19, 2006 11:30AM (EST)

The first thing Lou Reed does when he walks into the Steven Kasher gallery, which will open one-half of his first major New York photography exhibit, "Lou Reed: New York," on Friday, is make fun of my name (too punny). The second thing he does is make fun of my tape recorder (too low-tech). Then, after he scolds the genial gallery owner about the font of some signage that displeases him, he settles in across a table from me, arms arranged protectively before him, fixes me with that cold stare that's oft been called reptilian and takes my questions.

Well, he doesn't exactly take my questions, but he does talk to me, and over the course of the next 45 minutes -- longer, much to the surprise and confusion of the trio of press handlers eavesdropping on our conversation from behind a half-wall, than our scheduled time -- the rock icon reveals himself to be a man of opposites, as high-contrast as the Warhol-era photography that first seriously inspired him to pick up a camera nearly three decades ago.

A notoriously difficult interview -- he has called journalists "vermin" -- Reed, 63, is, in fact, fiercely protective, even evasive, speaking over some questions, refusing to answer others, putting me on notice every step of the way. But as he carries our conversation along, with me and my ignored list of questions trailing hopefully after him, it becomes clear that something else is going on here: Reed is yearning to make contact, longing to be understood. C'mon, babe, he seems to be saying to me as, mid-interview, he reaches out and gives my hand an encouraging pat, take a walk on the wild -- or at least the wildly colorful -- side.

That's where his photography comes in. Reed's photos, which will also be shown uptown at the Gallery at Hermès and compiled and released as a book, offer the world a chance to look at New York through Lou Reed's eyes. Taken over the last three years, some of them from the window of Reed's own apartment, the photos are a vivid exploration of light and movement, and they are surprisingly beautiful, even -- dare I say? -- sentimental. Devoid of people, replete with brilliant sunsets and neon, they're certainly not the gritty-underbelly shots you'd expect from the man who, in his Velvet Underground days, turned out songs like "Heroin" and "Sister Ray." But Lou Reed, who catches me off guard by enveloping me in a warm hug as we wrap up our interview and then pulls me back into the gallery to look at one last photo he's sure I'll particularly enjoy, is nothing if not a man of surprises.

How long have you been taking photos and when did you start taking it seriously?

You know, I don't know, a long time. I started because of touring, constantly being in situations where it's like ... you know, I get to see some things that most people don't, I think it's fair to say, or from a view that they might not ever have. And just for myself, some of what I saw was just so beautiful. I like cameras anyway, and I was playing around for a long, long, long time. If you really want to know how long, it goes all the way back to the '70s. I did a tour where I had 60 monitors in 12 stacks of five that I was running these customized videotapes on that I had made through customized video cameras. It was very high contrast. That's when I started.

So is it --

Let's see, '78, '79, '80 ... that's 20, 22, plus 6  28 years, playing around.

It sounds like the technology really drives your interest. Is that true?

Well, the technology's really great fun because it opens certain doors to ways of doing things or seeing things, or if you saw it and couldn't get it before, the new technology might make it so you could get it, whatever "it" might be, you know? And to this day, a lot of things I use are customized. I do that in everything.

Do you use different cameras for different situations?

Yes, if you have two different cameras looking at the same thing, you get two different results. It's kind of amazing. I'm very much in love with a particular lens on a Contax camera. It's a perfect wide-angle lens. It's just like a piece of jewelry; you could wear it as a ring. It's so beautiful, the engineering, everything about it is just so ... Looking through the viewfinder for me is like being in a movie theater. That's what I like about it.

It's interesting --

It's not the same as real life. At all.

It does --

It's very much a director editing a movie. And in digital as the bit rate, the megabytes and all this, goes up, you can start really looking at it as a movie director going through this material and isolating it through cropping.

Are there --

I'm following the technology as more things become available. I really am a big fan of digital in audio as well as optics.

Are there --

I mean, I wished for certain things in a camera and what I was wishing for turned out to be digital. I was trying to do all kinds of things in analog that in digital just come with it.

So you were able to have kind of a breakthrough?

I'm not one of those people mourning the loss of film or tape. Believe me. Things are just different. I understand the love of it. I also think that's that and that was that a long time ago. This is just the beginning of the whole ... It's the equivalent of the invention of the airplane.

What made you --

I mean, if you still want to take a bicycle, that's OK. Some people always love that. But I mean, it's apples and oranges. There's always going to be people saying, that's not as good as this: Vinyl isn't as good as CD; CD is clearer than vinyl. Whatever suits your purposes, you could go back and forth. They're not exclusionary.

What about --

But when I sat around, I said, "Geez, I wish ..." And that wish was digital. I just didn't know it at the time.

The beauty of the photos is so striking. They're much less gritty than I would have expected. And I wonder --

[Reaching out and giving my hand a favorable pat] That was the idea, literally, behind all of this [gesturing to proofs of photos on the walls]. I was following this beauty, this overwhelming beauty that you see in New York, and I wanted to get the light, whatever it takes. These are all digital. There were certain things I could do with film and with digital I couldn't even come close, and then it started getting better. And aha! It was just exactly the same thing as in sound: When it first started, it was like, oh my God, these CDs are the worst-sounding, and they were. And then, depending on what you play it back on, there's amazing stuff on some CDs. It depends on how it was mastered, a whole tech thing, but the point is they don't have to sound like shit. And meanwhile in this area I had a goal, which was a filmic one. There were these things I wished I could do, and lo and behold, the technology moved along. And I said, wow, with natural light in New York, it'd be amazing if I could only get that down -- I mean, for me to look at.

So when you took them you didn't have any eye toward showing them publicly?

No, I mean, I've been doing these things for a long time for myself to look at.

They seem very personal. Are they? I mean, a lot of them were taken from your apartment --

Wait a minute. This constant thing about taking them from the apartment, where did that come from? Who told you that?

It's in the press release and on your Web site.

It's on the press release.

I think so.

Well, if you look at a lot of this stuff, there's no way it could be from the apartment. [Under his breath] It's insane.

Obviously, some of them aren't. There are a few that I noticed were.

A couple are.

So that's inaccurate?

Well, it's not the whole story. I mean, my God.

Maybe people just like to imagine you in your apartment with your camera. There's some kind of intimacy there that captures people's imagination. It's a nice idea, you reaching over --

The thing is because it's natural light, there's only this little bit of time, because it's always shifting. You know that. But the minute it hits, you can tell. Anyone who plays with a camera knows ...

When the moment is ...

Oh. It's clear as a bell. You would have to be retarded and blind to miss it. And it's for X amount of time, or the sun can go behind a cloud and that's it. So you'd better have something with you.

Are there emotions you feel you can capture with a camera that you can't capture --

[Yelling to gallery owner, very irritated] Kasher!

Where are the titles? You know, I'd like to show her the titles we ended up with.

[A list of titles -- "Topple," "The Past," "Roil Sky" -- is proffered.]

I had a question about the titles, actually. What made you decide to give them titles? At some point, you said that you did not want to give your photographs titles because you felt as if they should speak for themselves without words.

I did and then I saw a lot of photos by other people. [Loudly, as a cellphone rings in the adjacent room] That's not me.

Me neither.

You know, "Untitled 1, 2, 3." And I thought, I write lyrics, I ought to be able to write a title that would help the person looking at it know what I had in mind without defining it by saying "Pear tree in Cuba," you know? "Dimwit in a Car Wash." I ought to be able to -- yes, no? Do you know what I mean?

Yes, I know exactly what you mean.

So there's a whole string of them.

There was one photo that I had an association with that your title indicated that you had a different association with --

I hope you're not going to ask me to explain a title.

No, I'm not asking you to explain a title.

P.R. handler (entering): You have 10 minutes.

Reed: Oh, no, no, no. No, no, no, no, no. I like her.

P.R. handler (retreating, chastened): OK, well, if he likes you ...

Reed (pointedly): I hope she doesn't turn on me in a minute.

I'm not planning to. So I wondered if there was something you're able to communicate emotionally through images that you're not able to communicate through music or your lyrics?

You know, I really think it's the same in the end. I mean, it's not like I haven't thought about that. Sitting and looking at something and sitting and hearing something are two different things, but in the end it's the same. It just makes you think what a remarkable thing a human being is to even be able to do this. But it's not just being able to hear and see, it's being able to differentiate something that's maybe not very special or unusual -- and then something extraordinary, sonically or optically, and capture the energy of that, either through some form of optical recording or audio recording. And then, of course, if you get into trying to combine the two, that's a whole other experience, and if you put dialogue to it, you could end up with something called a movie or an installation. But just any of those things by themselves ...

You know, I watched Warhol for a long time, and he was no slouch verbally. I've known a lot of people who claimed to be writers. It's odd that Warhol, who, you know, people seemed to think of as some kind of idiot savant or something -- aside from the fact that now what he did is being appreciated, of course not while he was alive. I mean, look at what's happening with the painting now -- but some of what he said, for a person who supposedly wasn't so articulate, there are sayings of his that are now part of the language, probably in the dictionary somewhere. Everybody'll be famous for 15 minutes. Who said that? Warhol said that. No slouch he. And I was watching him like a hawk, really paying attention to what he was doing.

And then Billy Linich, Billy Name, the photographer there, the incredible high-contrast photos he was doing. That's what gave me the idea to bring in a video camera and have it modified so it would do that. And then I was off and running.

Has your work with the camera informed your music? Is there anything you've picked up conceptually and then taken back to your music?

No, it's been the other way. All the experience from audio, because it came first.

What is it about New York --

You know, if the sun was an oboe, what would you do?

Is that --

No, no. I was just making a funny little haiku. That was just a little joke. Well, it's a half-joke. Because how would you hear it?

[Gesturing to a photo] I mean look at the light there. And the title of that is "Jackhammer."

To come up with a title, you looked at an image and then free-associated what it evoked for you?

What is it about? What's the title that could evoke the picture and not define it in a negative way? This sounds so pretentious. Talking about visuals is really ...

It can be hard --

So if I come across as pretentious it's because I was trying to answer a question.

It's like trying to talk about music -- you sound like an idiot. I can just see, "You sound like an idiot, Lou, there are other people that can articulate fine."

It's --

It's like there [gesturing toward a photo of a building brilliantly lit by the sun], I mean that building is burning, and it's called sunburn, because it's the sun hitting it, it's not ... I just kept looking at that day after day, trying to get it, and I did get it.

Do you feel triumphant when you're able to capture those things?

I feel relieved.

Does it feel like a burden until you're able to do it?

Not a burden, just ... how do you do that? How do I do that?

So it's like it's a problem to be solved?

It's ... it didn't burn enough, it's not burning the way it really burns, it looks flat, the color's not right. What's off? And if you don't figure that out, it's gone forever. And that's it. You can just say to someone, well, I saw this amazing building with light. Too bad you weren't there.

Right --

But see, this is my way. I was there. And you could kind of be there now. This is what I saw that was so beautiful about New York, this city. And it's all about light.

And movement, no?

Well, yeah. Sure. I mean, that light's moving.

And color. Those are the three elements that seem to jump out.

[Pointing to a photo of a series of red-tinted moons] That's the eclipse, the blood-moon eclipse that we had [in October 2004], remember?


It happens only once every few years. I was up on the roof with a tripod and the camera trying to get that thing as it's moving quickly. I mean, I tried as hard as I could. And now that really is gone. That particular eclipse. That color of the moon. This isn't a Photoshop lesson. Anyone could go take a picture of the moon and go color it in. That's not what I'm doing.

It sounds a little bit like it's about capturing time for you --

They have movement and certain feelings to them. They're just so beautiful. I love having a double moon. I love that. Because we don't, but now we do. Or at least, I made a double moon. And I keep reading about Saturn and its double moons, and I thought, wow, well wouldn't it be great if we had a double moon? So I made a double moon. Not in Photoshop. I didn't draw it in.

What about --

But it's supposed to be pretty.

Is photography more solitary than music? Music is such a collaborative form. It's not just your thing. There are other people who are --

Well, this is not just my thing either. There are the people who are showing me the lenses and how you do this and how you do that and what you do when that happens. And then there's the printer, and so much goes into the printing, it's beyond. It's like the mixing of an album; I'm used to all this. In the studio, though, it starts with the song, and only one guy wrote the song, and everybody else can join in under the directions of that person to perform the song. I always try to work with people whose work I like in the first place. I'm not trying to change anyone. They can fit into this. But somebody had to write the song; in that case, it was me. And somebody had to take the picture, and that was also me. But I couldn't print it. I'm there whispering in their ear, but I mean, my God, what they can do with what you bring to the dance. And then look at where that dance can go, and the collaboration between you and the printer, you and the developer, you and the mixer. I'm very used to that kind of collaboration. And I probably as well as anyone on earth knows if that collaboration is not equal and wonderful, doom, heartbreak lie ahead.


I'm serious.

I'm sure. It's a very small room that you have to share with people.

It's not only that, it's like if you have a bad editor, it'll be a nightmare for you to look at this, for you and for me, if I read these things.

If you have a bad editor, they could take the punch line of a joke out because they don't get the joke. That's what I mean. What can you do to someone who does that except to get as far away as possible. Because obviously there's nothing you can talk about. You can't explain this, you can't explain that. It just won't happen. Better to move to a mountaintop so you can get away.

OK. One last question.

I have so many questions we haven't gotten to, it's hard to choose just one, but you're about to go perform at the winter Olympics --

Have you looked at that plane that's in there?

Well, then let's talk about that. There's a sense of beauty in these photos but in many of them there's a sense of foreboding as well --

Well, you know, before if you had a picture of a plane in the sky it's one thing. Now if you see a picture and there's a helicopter there, it means something else.

Did 9/11 change --

I don't talk about it. I'm just mentioning it in passing regarding this. I was here for 9/11 so I don't like to talk about it.

I was here too. I understand. I won't ask you about it.

Thank you. Some people don't understand, the ones who weren't here. They think, oh, tell us about it, as if you're talking about a night at the deli.

I wasn't actually going to ask you about it. I was going to ask you about something related.

OK. So anyway ...

You're about to go on a tour of Europe. First the Winter Olympics and then Europe --

Look at that red in there. Can you believe, the red?

The colors are tremendous. It is interesting to see your take on the things that we look at every day.

Well, that's the thing, because you can slow time down for a minute. That sounds funny, slow time down for a minute. But you can stop it kind of. Because it's always passing. If you could just stop it for a second and look at that. I mean, anyone walking down the West Side -- there's a park there now -- can see this. It's just there, every night, every morning. Nothing to do with us.

What do you want people to take away from this exhibit?

I don't expect anything. But I think these things are fascinating and beautiful and available to anybody. And I think beautiful things make us feel good. So that's what I want, if I had anything to say about things, which I don't. I only have something to say about the way the pictures turned out.

By Amy Reiter

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