Photo: Riv-Ellen Prell
Arthur Meyerson interviewed Steven Foldes on June 27, 2016. Here is the text of that interview:
AM: Where do you live and what do you do for a living?
SF: I live in Minneapolis. I was trained as a social anthropologist and my career has been in public health and health services research. After various leadership positions in government and the healthcare industry I started an independent consulting practice a few years ago focusing on research relevant to public policy. I also hold an appointment as an adjunct professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota. Most of my publications concern tobacco control and public policy, though recently I’ve worked on projects about the economics of dementia and the costs to taxpayers and society of youth experiencing homelessness.
AM: Where/when did you first develop your interest in photography?
SF: My father was an amateur photographer and gave me a Kodak Brownie when I was still in elementary school. We were Hungarian refugees and had very little money after we first arrived in 1957, so it showed how much he valued photography. Over time I came to recognize that I experience the world more visually than many other people, and I’ve always loved making photographs.
AM: Of all the art forms in the world, why photography?
SF: I am moved by other visual arts and music too. But I find that when done well, photography has an extraordinary capacity to capture and hold a moment in space and time that invites us to contemplate life and society, its beauty, its tragedy and its meaning. My wife, a professor, does this wonderfully with narrative. I strive to do it with my photos.
AM: What approach do you take to photography?
SF: I like a comment by Dorothea Lange: “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” For me, photography is about seeing the world more intentionally—recognizing moments, and really seeing light, patterns and colors. Sometimes I just imagine a frame as I look somewhere, and it makes my visual experience more vivid.
AM: How often do you photograph?
SF: I always take my camera when we travel but otherwise mostly when I decide on a photography project. I organized a small photo club with some friends a few years ago, and our meetings create defined goals, a friendly audience, and helpful deadlines for me.
AM: Other than workshops, have you had any formal training in photography?
SF: When I was in graduate school at the University of Chicago a few of us studied briefly with a documentary photographer who helped me develop my eye and taught us some darkroom skills, in exchange for us teaching him a little about ethnography. We did some street photography together on Maxwell Street. I confess we got the better end of the bargain. But mostly, I learned a lot from my own mistakes! I also learned a lot from photography exhibits, from understanding how photography has changed with movements in art, and from studying the work of great photographers. I’ve learned a lot from you, Arthur, and from how you talk about your work, and your comments about mine.
AM: What is your favorite genre of photography?
SF: I’m most drawn to street photography, starting with Henri Cartier-Bresson, and photography that has social relevance, like the work of Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Dorothea Lange, and more recently Sebastião Salgado. But I also admire nature photography, such as the work of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Jim Brandenburg, and I appreciate portraits by photographers such as Irving Penn and Annie Liebowitz.
AM: What inspires you or where do you seek inspiration?
SF: I’m inspired by being in visually exciting places or seeing great art by photographers and painters, such as Georgia O’Keefe and Hans Richter. Their work makes me want to pick up my camera because, as Elliott Erwitt pointed out, photography has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.
AM: Who do you most admire (past or present) and why or who’s art do you admire?
SF: There are so many admirable artists! I recently saw an exhibit of Steve McCurry’s photos of India at the Rubin Museum, organized by the International Center for Photography. It blew me away. I admire your work too, Arthur, and have two of your photos hanging in our dining room!
AM: What is your greatest personal achievement?
SF: I’m proud of achievements in various parts of my life. Personally, the relationships that I’ve created and live in, from my marriage to my children and the communities I’m part of are important to me. I’m also proud that in 2007 my research helped pass Minnesota’s Freedom to Breathe legislation that ended smoking in all public places. My work has influenced public policies nationally and I can truly say that my work saved peoples’ lives!
AM: Name somewhere and/or someone you’d love to photograph?
SF: I was trained as an anthropologist and I remain entranced by cultural differences. Culture creates our perception of the world, and there are visual traces of culture that can be photographed. Those traces can be seen in things as grand as rituals or as prosaic as daily life. That’s what I look for wherever I am.
AM: Do you have a favorite photography book?
SF: I have many favorites, but one classic to which you introduced me is Ernst Haas’ Creation.
AM: What do you collect?
SF: Experiences. We’re trying to reduce rather than increase the stuff we own. But at one time we collected ethnic toys and miniatures, and we have some pottery from our travels.
AM: What is your most valuable possession?
SF: If I think about what I would grab if there were a fire, I’d say it is the photographs. I have black and white family photos from Europe, one of the few things we got out of Hungary when we fled, Polaroid prints, lots of slides, books of negatives, and of course now digital files. We have some Kiddush cups that survived the Holocaust by being buried in Germany that were a gift to me and my wife. We have some art and objects that have sentimental value, but most everything else can be replaced.
AM: If you were to invite 1‐5 personalities for a dinner conversation, who would they be?
SF: I’d love to have dinner with Barack Obama, James Hansen (the courageous climate scientist who warned of global warming while he was at NASA), Atul Gawande (the surgeon and author) and the writers Jonathan Franzen and Elizabeth Kolbert, both of whom wrote fascinating books involving the environment. I’d start the discussion with, “let’s talk about the next fifty years.” It would be grim, but interesting!
AM: Aside from photography, what is your favorite pastime?
SF: I enjoy travel, great museums and lovely walks. I savor dinner parties with lively conversations with friends and intellectually stimulating discussions with colleagues. I love spending time with my children and traveling with them and their significant others. I enjoy watching films and interesting TV with my wife and talking about it endlessly, and about politics and the news. We are news junkies. I enjoy reading fiction and we have a good book group. However, we’re soon to become grandparents, so priorities may change!
AM: What camera and equipment do you use?
SF: For many years I used my father’s Zorky, a Russian-made Leica range finder camera that required a hand-held light meter. Spontaneity was tough. I finally got a Canon AT-1 and used that until it was stolen in Miami. Now I use a Nikon D7100 with a Nikkor 18-200mm zoom or a fast Nikkor 50mm portrait lens.
AM: What is/ are your goals in photography?
SF: To make photographs that capture in a visually striking way something ordinary in our daily lives, to capture a fleeting moment or to reveal something deeper in a scene or person I photograph. I had an exhibit of my work some years ago that was great fun. I’ve learned so much more and have since made some photos that I’m proud of. I’d like to do another exhibit when I feel I have enough good work to share with the world.
AM: Tell us something about yourself that we don’t know.
SF: I’ve been a scuba diver, but I never took a camera down with me.
AM: Do you have a website or some other place we can we see more of your pictures?
SF: This interview inspired me to finally create one. It is foldesphotography.com.
AM: Thank you, Steven!