In Conversation with Richard Khanlian

ASMP-NM is fortunate to have many members who’ve chosen to live in New Mexico after making successful careers and reputations elsewhere. For some, it is because New Mexico is a great place to retire. For others it is a residence of choice with access to diverse cultures, new opportunities, an exciting landscape and incredible skies, a stimulating cultural environment, or a total change of pace. Their specialties are many and they work, not just throughout the country, but around the world. 

This month, we thought it would be interesting to visit with one of our senior members who lives a full life both photographically and personally and who has perspective to share with emerging photographers.

Many, if not most of you, know Richard Khanlian. He lives in Santa Fe, serves on the ASMP-NM board, and has a fascinating history in photojournalism, an insatiable thirst for knowledge, an incredible eye and a well-developed sense of moment.  I met Richard shortly after moving to Santa Fe six years ago and was disarmed by his modesty and reluctance to talk about himself. Fortunately, he agreed to a conversation, but still insisted that there were better subjects. 

DH: Richard, did you feel driven to take up photography? 

RK: Growing up as a kid and into my teen years, I was usually on the other side of a camera with my father taking movies and pictures in which I was a reluctant participant to say the least. I did occasionally pick up the box camera that we had and take a few pictures, but not very seriously. I never thought of photography as something I would do seriously until after I was out of college.

DH: Was that because you studied photography in college?

RK: No, I was an English major in college. In my early twenties, I was working at the New York Times, in New York, and I can’t remember why, but I began to think about doing photographs, not as a career initially, but just for fun. I think I was about 22 when I bought my first camera, which was a little folding 35mm camera—a Kodak Retina IIIC. I took pictures with that for about a year or two and then I bought my first SLR, a Honeywell Pentax. At that time Honeywell was the distributor for the Asahi Pentax and initially I had a 50mm lens. Then I got a 28 and a 105, so I had a 3-lens battery. And then I bought a second body. 

I used to walk around New York and just snap pictures on the street. But, I was still thinking of myself more as a writer. 

DH: So, how did you acquire your knowledge of photography?

RK: By reading, by doing it and by taking an occasional workshop. I never went to school for a photography degree. I just read magazines and books about photographic processes.

DH: We’ll come back to this subject, but first, tell me how you made the transition from writer to photographer.

RK  I got to a certain point at the New York Times when it seemed clear to me that I was not going to move that up the ladder and get a position as a staff reporter. In fact they told me, “You should go to a smaller publication, get experience and then you can come back when you’ve made a reputation in a smaller market.” 

I thought, “Well OK maybe I’ll do that, but initially I think I’d like to go to Europe because I’m soon going to be turning 25 and I’ll be decrepit by the time I’m twenty six.” So, I took my severance pay and in the spring of 1964, got on a Yugoslavian freighter bound for Genoa with my cameras and a trunk of clothing and stuff and set off.

The first port of call was Casablanca in Morocco and the next port of call was Tangier. I joined some of the other passengers and got off there. It was funny—sort of like a student ship of young people in 1964 going off to see what they could see of Europe and the Old World—and Tangier had a reputation for easy access to “Mary Jane” and other pleasures.

I spent a couple of weeks in Tangier and then took a ferry across to Gibraltar and then up through Spain. I didn’t speak Spanish, so I was a little disoriented in Spain. I went on up to France, because I had studied French in school for years and figured I could get by in France pretty well.

In May of 1964, I wound up in Paris, and realized I was running through my money pretty quickly, even back in those inexpensive days. So I thought, “I’ll go the New York Times office in Paris and see what they have in their classified jobs listings. Maybe I can find something.”

In those days they were publishing the NYT International Edition; it was similar to the International Herald Tribune. It was about a 16 to 24-page paper aimed at people living abroad. One of its main reasons for being was it had the Wall Street stock market reports, but also international news. The first thing I heard was, “We’re looking for somebody to run the darkroom,” and so I said, “I can do that,” because I think I had read an article or two about how to develop film. 

DH: You had never done it before?

RK: No, I hadn’t done it before, but I had read about it.

It was a small darkroom. Most of the photographs they used came from the wire services over what would now look like an early Thomas Edison invention. It was called a Belinograph and it was a machine with a cover you opened in the dark and then you wrapped a piece of photographic paper around a cylinder, then closed the cover and started the reception. The cylinder would spin around and electrical pulses would illuminate a light inside that would imprint the paper as the light assembly scanned across the sheet. Most of my work involved receiving these images and developing them in the wet darkroom.

DH: But, I understand your job wasn’t all about darkroom work. You also made your own photographs for the Times.

RK: Yes, they sent me out to photograph on local stories, if a reporter was going to interview somebody in Paris, if there was a celebration or a street demonstration or a building renovation. Sometimes I’d just go wandering and look for things I would try to sell to the editor on my own. I did that for three years in Paris, and found the instant gratification of photography more appealing than laboriously sitting at a typewriter trying to compose a story.

DH: So, It was working in Paris that turned you on to photography…

RK:  While I was living in Paris, I became familiar with photographers like Cartier-Bresson, André Kertesz, Edouard Boubat, Robert Doisneau, and some of the other European street photographers, and they very much appealed to me.

DH: Was there any one photographer who really made an early impression on you?

RK: Not one…I guess it was the whole school of street photographers

Probably the first ones I saw were Cartier-Bresson and a few other French people followed by Robert Frank and later Helen Levitt, who did a lot of street photography in New York. I liked the way they captured the human experience and did it in a way that was both aesthetically and narratively satisfying. There was a story in the picture, and the way it was composed was striking. There were the photographers who captured some humor in their photographs like Elliott Erwitt. And then—back to the documentary—Bruce Davidson, Eugene Richards, and Gordon Parks.

I guess I came to photography from more of a writer-journalist-documentarian background rather than an art school background, although somewhere along the way I saw the potential in photographic abstracts.

DH: Was photography more accepted as an art form in Paris?

RK: I don’t know. I don’t recall going to art gallery exhibitions of photographs. There were books being published by Atget, Cartier-Bresson and people like that, but most museums and art galleries still concentrated on paintings and sculpture. 

I believe I was thinking of photography more for publications than for prints to hang on a wall. But, I did, toward the end of my time in Paris, discover the work of some of the large format photographers. I remember seeing Paul Caponigro’s work in Paris and being very moved by it, just for the beautiful tonality and detail that he captured. I saw books by some of the West Coast photographers like Weston and Adams and people like that and that opened up a new kind of photography to get interested in.

DH: Were the French people, at that time, more accepting of street photographers? After all, France is really the birthplace of photography.

RK: Well it depends. In Paris, as in any big city, you could walk around on the street and take pictures and people generally wouldn’t notice you.  On the other hand, I can remember walking into the courtyard of a picturesque building (most French buildings had a street entrance that led into a courtyard), starting to take pictures and having a woman yell at me in French from an upstairs window, “It is forbidden to photograph in here.” I said, “Oh don’t trouble yourself.” And then she got mad and said she was going to throw a pot of water out on my head. So it depends. Mostly it was pretty relaxed, I’d walk the streets or go to the parks and take pictures of people and they would pretty much go about their business.

DH: Did you consider staying in Europe?

RK: I considered it. But, the International Edition was closed in 1967. The Times, I guess, looked at their bottom line and said, “We’re not making money on this; we’re going to stop trying to compete with the International Herald Tribune. We’re going to buy a share of it.” That was at the same time the New York Herald Tribune, which was the Times main competitor in New York, was going out of business. So the Times, the Washington Post and the International Herald Tribune became equal shareholders and I was out of a job. But, I looked forward to a summer off and my youngest brother was getting married back in the States in September of 1967. So I came back thinking that because I really enjoyed living there, I would soon go back to Europe. But that didn’t happen.

DH: Let’s flash forward a bit. You’ve told me that when you returned to New York, you weren’t sure you wanted to stay in the newspaper business. You took a workshop then with Paul Caponigro. 

RK: It met for several weeks, I think it was on Saturdays or Sundays at his place up in Connecticut. We’d go out and photograph and he’d talk about his photographic philosophy. We’d do field trips, look at prints and we’d watch him in the darkroom, although as a teacher he was not like Adams; he didn’t codify everything. He’d say, “Well, we’re going to mix the developer now,” and he’d pour a little bit of this and a little bit of that—sort of like a bartender. It was mostly, for him, about feeling, although he did talk about the zone system. But he also talked about his relationship with Minor White and some of the more mystical and intuitive approaches to photography.

DH: And during that same period, you worked at a less than satisfying job with a printing/publishing company in New York and decided you wanted to try something new. You met a woman from Germany who had lived in New Mexico for a while. She talked about the beauty of New Mexico and wanted to move back out here.

RK: We moved out to New Mexico in the spring of 1968. We took off in her Volkswagen bug with all our possessions in the back seat and the dog riding on top of the pile and headed for Albuquerque. It was the time when people were talking about dropping out of the mainstream and living off the land. We settled in Corrales and I worked a number of odd jobs for a while, everything from unloading boxcars to picking vegetables to editing 16mm movie film, and finally, I finally got a job with the Albuquerque Public Schools in their Public Information Department. It involved journalistic skills—writing and taking photographs for in-house publications and news releases and that kind of thing. I did that for four years.

I’d shoot pictures of classroom situations, new construction and interviews with teachers who were doing innovative things, and all kinds of stuff…but it felt like I was being the mouthpiece for the school administration without being in on the decision making part, which could be uncomfortable because I didn’t always agree with the administrative decisions.

DH: During his years in Albuquerque, Richard underwent a personal evolution, during which had two children, left his job with the Albuquerque Public Schools, tried a number of occupational forays into diverse areas, all the while maintaining his interest in photography. Amid all this activity, his first marriage ended and he began teaching mathematics at what was then called the Albuquerque Technical Vocational Institute—better known as TVI—which has since become the Central New Mexico Community College. He also taught staff development courses in photography—teaching teachers how to use photography in their classrooms. He developed slide presentations on the history and some of the technical aspects of photography.

In 1983, he met his present wife, Ann. They were married in 1985.  In 1986, he took a sabbatical for a semester and went to Nicaragua.

RK: It was to document a building project on a farm co-op. I went with a group called the New Mexico Construction Brigade. We had come together because we disagreed with what was then the United States’ support for the Contra war against the Sandinistas. We felt it was unjustified cold war anti-communist hysteria and we wanted to do something that extended a hand of friendship. So, I went along and participated in the construction and documented it as well. The pictures were published in the Albuquerque Journal and Tribune and also in the Santa Fe New Mexican. 

After that, I decided not to go back to the teaching job, and with Ann’s approval, I went back to making a living in photography and related activity. Here in Santa Fe, I worked at Camera & Darkroom for two or three years in the late ‘80s and ran a custom black and white printing service.

DH: When did you first pick up a digital camera?

That must have been in 2001 or 2002. I think I got a Canon G2, which was a little 4mp camera. It had a rudimentary viewfinder and had an LCD monitor on the back that would fold out and swivel, which was a nice feature. And as soon as I started working with that…within months…I put an end to my darkroom work. I seldom picked up the film cameras after that. By that time my arsenal of film cameras included every format from 35mm to 4×5 with several lenses for each.

Digital appealed to me right away. I took classes in Photoshop and learned how to do some post processing. By that time, I was in my early 60s and not enjoying spending eight hours on my feet in the darkroom and sloshing prints through trays.

Being able to work at a computer, print in the daylight and see the finished product come out so quickly without having to wait overnight for it to dry and then going back to look at it in the morning really appealed to me. 

DH: Did you find the learning curve relatively easy when you made the transition to digital?

RK: It didn’t seem that hard.

DH:  …due to your background in traditional photography?

RK: A lot of the basic principles applied—exposure, development, contrast, color saturation…that kind of thing. It opened the door for me to do my own color printing which I’d never done before. I’d always sent out any color work that had to be done. So having that capability was nice—I like having the fine controls that are afforded by working on the computer with small areas of the image, plus the repeatability of digital printing as opposed to darkroom printing. You know how it is when you work in the darkroom to make a fine print.  You have to learn a dance with the dodging and burning tools, repeat it over and over again and try to get it similar each time. It’s not easy.

At first, the problem with digital printing was its impermanence. With the dye-based inks it was pretty shocking to make a print and hang it on the wall. You’d look at it six months later and it would be all bleached out. 

Yeah, digital seemed to come pretty easily and it came at the right time in my life. I know people who sought out more arcane processes like platinum and gum bichromate, and there’s some beauty to some of those processes.  But at that point in my life I wasn’t interested in putting more stumbling blocks between capturing the image and having a representation of it on paper. As the technology evolved, I thought the digital prints were getting quite beautiful and I was happy with the ability to emulate some of the qualities of other kinds of alternative and chemically processed prints.

DH: There’s an entire generation of photographers who’ve grown up without the historical perspective many of us older photographers have. I often feel that a lot of young image-makers are reinventing the wheel, all the while thinking they’re doing something new and different. How do you see it?

RK: Of course digital photography has opened up a whole lot more areas of photo manipulation in terms of compositing images. Some people were doing it with traditional processes, like Jerry Uelsmann or some of the people who did silk screens or painted over photographs, but now—with the computer and available software—you can collage elements of images that were very difficult to do before. So, when I look a work of younger photographers I see a lot of people doing that as opposed to straight photography.

When I started, I didn’t know that much about the history of photography. I learned, but I never imagined that I was going to do something in photography than nobody else had ever done before. I would have been quite happy to work in the tradition ofCartier-Bresson or Caponigro or Ansel Adams or somebody like that. I thought…yes I’m going to see some situations—things are going to cross my path that maybe no one else has photographed—but I never thought of myself as inventing a whole new language. And that might be a result of not having gone to art school, because I guess that’s something that is emphasized a lot in art schools, that sort of “Show me something that hasn’t been done before” approach.

DH: Do you regret not having a formal photographic education?

RK: I don’t know… at one time I had a girl friend who had an art school background. She was sort of contemptuous of my work and that would piss me off. But, I have mixed feelings. I think I have things to learn about composition and harmony of shape and color, but at the same time I think that a lot of the art world is just pretentious and self-important. 

For me, what makes a photograph is some combination of information plus some sort of subconscious emotional appeal, and I don’t know where that—especially the latter—comes from, whether it’s something that’s hard wired into us or whether it comes from recollection of some sort of Proustian subconscious reminder of something from childhood, or what. Some things provoke an emotional response and I don’t know why, especially the more you get away from just documents that convey a piece of specific information. It can be landscape, it can be abstract; sometimes I feel a response to a photograph and I can’t say why.

DH: But, isn’t that what we all are looking for in a photograph? 

RK: And that’s what I look for when I’m making a photograph, too.

I liked Gary Winogrand’s response to the question, “Why do you photograph?” and he said, “ Well, I photograph to see what something is going to look like when it is photographed.” That’s kind of flip, but at the same time…yeah.

You know, you take photographs for different reasons. If you’re photographing for a client, you think about what your client needs. If you’re photographing your kids, you’re doing it because they’re your kids and you want to document a moment in your life or in their lives and you think that looks good. If you’re just wandering—if you’re looking for a photograph that evokes a reaction, it could be anything, or you may have an idea in your mind and you go and compose a photograph. I mean there are all kinds of reasons to make photographs. 

DH: If you were starting over today, is there something you would do differently?

RK: It would depend on whether I wanted to actually make a living in photography. If I did, I would go find somebody whose work I admired and who had found a viable income from photography, and I’d try to apprentice myself. I sometimes regret that I didn’t do that when I got back to New York. I regret that I didn’t go with a more organized and purposeful approach and say, “I like this guy’s work and I’m going to knock on his door and ask to be his assistant and learn what he has to teach…”

DH: So, essentially that would be your advice to a young person today?

RK: Probably so, but who knows? That might have led me into a different approach to photography. Fortunately, I’ve had the luxury to play with it all these years. On the other hand, I might have become much more skilled in a particular field of photography.

The accompanying photographs span a period of more than fifty years and cover a wide range of subjects revealing the continual development of one photographer’s vision and sensibilities. It is common for photographers these days to develop specialties and to become known for a particular style or technique. That was not so common in the fifties, sixties and seventies. Versatility was often the key to finding employment and surviving in a competitive marketplace, and that versatility was important, not just as it related to a photographer’s use of his tools. It was essential to be able to relate to a variety of subjects, media and client attitudes. 

When you think of it that way, the demands of the business haven’t changed all that much over the years. But we do operate in a more complex market with more choices and more rapidly changing technology. And, it sure isn’t getting easier.