A Playground with No Supervision: An Interview with Ernie Gehr

A Playground with No Supervision: An Interview with Ernie Gehr.
Daniel Kasman

Above: an enlargement of shot 2 from Ernie Gehr's Waterfront Follies.

3 shots, 3 setting sun, and a world’s worth of light and play.  Ernie Gehr’s Waterfront Follies, screened in the Toronto International Film Festival’s Wavelengths program, as well as at the Views from the Avant-Garde sidebar at the New York Film Festival, sets the rules and lets the world (and the audience) do the work.  Gehr records three Brooklyn waterfront sunsets in single shot long takes on his digital camera, each take accompanied by a direct sound recording from the area.  Each shot, each sun, each waterfront has a remarkably different character.

The first is the showstopper, the most dynamic of the trio.  With boat traffic at its peak, it plays with depth of space as rivercraft come in and out, closer and farther from the camera, and a lone cloud dissipates while the water gets darker and more desolate as the sun lowers towards the horizon.   As the last ferry leaves the shot it feels like a world has evacuated some impending doom.  If it were not for the hilarious soundtrack at the start of a Spanish man approaching Gehr somewhere behind the camera and talking travel and food as the filmmaker tries to say as little as possible, this vibrant opening gloaming might seem positively apocalyptic.

The high point for light is the second shot, flatter than the first, with a quay breaking into the bottom 1/3 of the shot, changing the quality of light, water texture, and color in the frame.  The drama of the first shot’s water activity is replaced by the drama of the sun itself—not its setting but, shockingly, the way its movement interacts with a horizon of invisible clouds in such a way that the sun literally appears to be disintegrating before our eyes, crumbling as much as a liquid blob can, bit by bit.  Bells sound constantly in the background in what initially seems like mourning—until, several gloomy minutes later, the sun re-emerges, reformed, triumphant.

The bells link the 2nd shot with the last, which peal over a soundtrack where another passerby asks Gehr what he intends to see or find by shooting the waterfront, to which the reticent cameraman replies: “we’ll see.”  Before the screening at TIFF, Gehr suggested the audience “see as much as they can, moment to moment, second to second,” and these three shots, despite their utter simplicity and the patience asked for from the audience, are replete with micro-narratives, color, emotion, and the textures of painting, of cinema, and of the movement of life.

I had a chance to talk with Ernie Gehr in Toronto about the film.  Special thanks to Alley Pezanoski-Browne for assisting in the interview.


NOTEBOOK: How did this video get made?

ERNIE GEHR: In the past I would apply for grants. I wanted funding but I was also shy. I didn’t get as many grants as I wanted to, and later on there’s more competition, a new generation of filmmaker, and they’re competing and I’m supposed to be established and when you’re established, they ask, “why are you applying for grants?” But I wasn’t making a living! So there were frustrations and I wouldn’t apply, I made a living teaching, but I didn’t want hold onto a regular teaching position for a long time. I didn’t teach all the time; I didn’t have money all the time, and I didn’t have savings; my parents couldn’t support me. So I made works when I was able to. Otherwise you would have seen—not as many as Brakhage—but probably twice as many pieces. You churn out X number of pieces one year, it doesn’t mean you’ll make as many next year, you might have a break, the tension is out, and I can’t do it. I try to work, try to be interested, but I need to take a break from making something, live my life for another few months and hopefully something will instigate a new work at that point. I can’t predict!

NOTEBOOK: Did Waterfront Follies come from a period of productivity?

GEHR: Between 1988 and 2005-2006 I taught on a regular basis at San Francisco Art Institute, so that was the only time when I taught without any stopping; I also taught at Berkeley at the same time. Then I stopped teaching and moved back to New York, and I have some time on my hands, and I’m getting old, and I know I should work as long as I’m mobile. It’s mostly feeling a pull or being attracted to something, so I just work. When I work with film, because it’s so expensive, I have to pay for every frame, so to speak; I have to be certain what I want to do and how I want to do it. So my shooting ratio was as close as 1-to-1 as possible; it hardly ever was, but I tried. But with video, you have a tape that’s one hour, and buy many of them for cheap, so I allow myself the luxury to follow an impulse without asking myself why do I want to record this image. It takes me a while sometimes to become conscious of why I found that image. I trust my intuition; I’ve been working since the 1960s, and there’s some things you do consciously and certain things where you follow your intuition, you know something is driving you to work in a particular way to follow certain possibilities. You may not be able to articulate that, and sometimes it’s even dangerous for people to articulate themselves, because then you can end up simplifying it, and the tension that you need to feel is gone.

NOTEBOOK: So I guess we shouldn’t be talking about the work!

GEHR: Oh it’s different, what’s completed is completed. There’s work that’s not completed that I never talk about, I never talk about works I want to make. Even when I apply for a grant—I say when—there’s the problem of the description they want of what I want to do. The way I work, it is very difficult to write down what I want to do, then I may not be interested, I would have to refer to that paper, what I said—it’s embarrassing. So I fill out applications so vaguely it could apply to anything, though it may not convince anybody.

NOTEBOOK: Did this video originate from a specific idea? Or perhaps from the location?

GEHR: It’s in Brooklyn, near Carroll Gardens, on the other side of the BQE.

NOTEBOOK: The three shots, are they all from the same geographic location? Because the last two shots have the bells pealing on the soundtrack, which is missing from the first shot.

GEHR: They were all recorded in my neighborhood, in Red Hook. I shot this near Fairway market, on the other side of which the Statue of Library, but I just avoided putting that in the shot. [Laughs] So I shot towards New Jersey. I guess you see Staten Island a little bit in the last shot, I think.

NOTEBOOK: Where did the sounds of the bells come from?

GEHR: If you go to Fairway, to the right, there’s a little barge that has a miniature museum, and that barge has these bells inside. So I just placed my camera near it, and the sound is there.

NOTEBOOK: How much set-up did you do, or was the location found by chance?

GEHR: I was recording material for a different piece, which is still a work in progress at the moment. I was walking around the other side of the area, towards that Ikea, and going back to my car suddenly there it is in front of me—this sunset. I said to myself, “this is such a cliché, how could I do this,” but somehow a thousand different things were running through my mind. It looked a bit like Monet, this sunset; that shot’s actually not in the film, it’s in the other project. But I set-up the camera, I said, “it’s tape, I can always erase it.” And it only took ten minutes for the sun to set, it was very beautiful, and I’ll use that take for something else. Looking at that take subsequently, I had some other thoughts and that included the possibility of making something. So it began by recording an image that seemed too much, for me—someone else might of found this a romantic image.

NOTEBOOK: What were you thinking that let you get past that immediate negative impulse?

GEHR: Let me put it this way. I don’t always succeed, but I’m interested in a work that’s like a field, a force field. A playground where there is no supervision, someone doesn’t say look over here, see that over there now; but more like a place where you can get lost, discover your own movie if you wish, your own pleasures. I look at a lot of works in other media, paintings and music, and I often have a problem. I admire some works that are so careful that ever brush stroke is determined and very carefully placed on the canvas and you can see how it relates to everything, how it makes absolute sense along with every other brush stroke—I can admire the craftsmanship, but I also find it claustrophobic, I find I need a space that’s more open. I’m looking at things for myself, I want the freedom to be able to see and decide for myself what’s taking place there. That’s something that’s not possible with things that are too directed. So both with the title of the work and with in terms of what I looked at, I determined the outer parameters of the work, what’s within the rectangle, zoom closer in, farther out, I determine the focus. The beginning, the ending; I know the work is going to be flat no matter how 3-dimensional the location is. I do hold a lot of control, and ultimately I feel I am responsible for the work on the whole, even if I set the recording, walk away, and come back. Because I look at the work and what it’s doing or not doing, and if I accept what it is, if I release it, I’m responsible, whether something is intended or not intended.

NOTEBOOK: How much did the soundtrack of each take influence your decision to keep that take in the final work? You said at the screening that you chose these three takes from roughly 20-25 you shot.

GEHR: Each take had its own character. That middle section, for example, would have been very tough to put it out there as it is with its duration. Its soundtrack, the bells, are a relief that allows you to have a rhythm outside of the slow change of the shot. Actually, the changes are dramatic.

NOTEBOOK: When I realized the sun’s color mutation made it look like it was crumbling…I had never seen an effect like that. And then it re-appears!

GEHR: Yes, one of the things I’m interested in in this particular work is the color changes.

NOTEBOOK: At the screening in Toronto, Darren Hughes asked what the video would have been like if you had shot it on film. Aside from saying that you had no idea since it was not shot on film, you said to make Waterfront Follies you set the camera up, set it to manual, and any sort of changes in color or texture in each take was based on the relationship between the light coming into the camera and the digital recording of this light. Is this interaction something that interests you about digital photography?

GEHR: Those effects would have happened on film too, though I don’t know how it would have looked. One thing that is different is that when you are working with film you are working with an intermittent projection of light, and even if you think you see it, it is different; on video there’s this interlacing taking place. On digital the image is softer. I wasn’t working in HD, I don’t know if the image would be sharper.

NOTEBOOK: In the second take, because of the dividing line of the rocks which separate both part of the water and part of the frame, my eyes kept being drawn to the radically different color and different rhythm of the water on the inside of those rocks, closer to the camera. In combination with the long-take and still camera, it achieved a kind of hypnotic quality. I gradually thought—and I don’t know if this is true or a more experiential reaction—that the digital video couldn’t keep up with the roiling texture of the sea. You mentioned that the first take you shot, the one that’s not in the film, had an Impressionistic look, like Monet, and this is almost what I saw, a pixilated swath of color with the movement of the sea that the digital almost could grasp but couldn’t quite capture. A great texture to the image.

GEHR: At this point, after so many years working with video, I don’t even know the difference between film and video. I don’t even know what it would be like on film! First of all, I couldn’t do this on film. I didn’t see the clouds when I was shooting, and so when the sun disappeared halfway through the take, if I was filming, once the sun was hiding under the clouds, I would have stopped, “ok, that’s the end of the take.” But with videotape, I held it wanting to see how the light would change, the temperature of the color. And in regards to what you were saying about the digital texture, there are layers in the water. There’s a rhyming thing—it’s almost embarrassing, and it’s only an afterthought—there are the dark rocks in the foreground, and they rhyme of course with the rhyme with the rectangle of the frame itself, and in the background the trees in New Jersey, and its grey. It’s the old classical thing where if you have a color that’s dark you put it in the front and so it seems closer and you make the color lighter and lighter as the distance is supposed to recede. So you have these two bodies of water, and the colors shift slowly. The water that’s further away there’s only a little bit of green at the beginning of the take, but by the end the whole thing is green, it’s amazing. The body of water that’s in the front remains the same purplish color, except for the beginning when it takes on the reflection of the sun, but the farther body looks like something else, it’s this red thing, this red color, but it’s not like the reflection in the closer body.
I’m really amazed at how the sky, for example, seems to have a certain kind of depth to it when the sun is there, and when it’s really gone the shot is flat like a Rothko painting, these clouds. I had never thought of Rothko for this!

NOTEBOOK: You mentioned at the screening this that was only the second time you had seen Waterfront Follies on the big screen, having made it on your 14-inch monitor. How does the work play differently for you when projected?

GEHR: It’s important to see on the big screen, at least for me. One level has to do with the scale. There are qualities of the work that only become apparent when you see it on the big screen, maybe not even on the first viewing.

NOTEBOOK: If you are editing or putting this together on a small screen, that’s a pretty dramatic difference in terms of what you are seeing there versus what might be seen when projected.

GEHR: That’s really nerve-wracking for me; I get very nervous the first time it is screened. I know I should project it. When I work with film, the only time I use a viewer is to find the frame. I edit with the projector, so I watch it with the projector. I made films to be projected, not to be seen on a viewer. And I couldn’t judge the character of the work except when it was projected. It’s only been with video, because I don’t want to spend another $800 or $1000 on a digital projector.

NOTEBOOK: So it’s back to economics again.

GEHR: Yes. I feel at this point there are too many times when I’m really thrown off, and I make changes after the screening. It’s happened with little pieces I show at Views from the Avant-garde in New York, I notice things I hadn’t seen on the monitor, so the works get re-edited. Though most of the people who are there never get to see it again. It’s a problem. I try to see it on a big screen, but it’s not the same actually seeing it on a theater screen. There are works that work better on a monitor, of course.

NOTEBOOK: I remember a work of your screen recently in New York, Shadows where the shadows and light play against the walls; that, for example, I can imagine has a level of intimacy that works better on a small screen rather than blown up.

GEHR: Yes, on a big screen that one was nerve-wracking. It’s not just that there’s people, it’s seeing it on this other scale. It’s personal, I have to take a step back because I’ve been too close to a work.

NOTEBOOK: Would you want to shoot in HD if you could, is that another issue of economics? Or do you prefer standard definition.

GEHR: I’ve been working with the same camcorder since 1998. It’s a Sony TRV-900.

NOTEBOOK: A resilient camera!

GEHR: I was lucky; but now the zoom has a mind of its own. I’m interested in an HD; the cost has been a problem. I want something that’s light; ideally I want something like a small little camcorder, but the manual controls on those are ridiculous. And the expensive ones—not that I want to buy them—are too heavy and too intimidating. You can’t work in, say, this coffee shop and record something. With a small camera, I can put it down here and record that couple over there and then put it back in my pocket. The other problem is that I work with tape, which lasts for years. For HD, 99.9% is solid state or something else and there’s this competition between the companies, and they aren’t all compatible. It’s crazy. It’s only a question of time, and then they’ll change to a different format, and then something else. Solid state won’t be around forever, so I have to live with that too. Still, I will be switching, soon.

What has really held me back from HD has been the format. Because unless you block off the sides you are working with a widescreen form, going from squares to rectangles.

NOTEBOOK: I don’t know if this is possible since I’m not a filmmaker, but I assumed because the HD image was so high resolution that you could crop your own frame from the master, widescreen image.

GEHR: You can do that, but then you have these two black areas, and if you project it you can matte the image with curtains of the theater, but if you show it on a monitor you have these black areas. It’s a totally different personality, for me. Opening up the frame has this other feel, and I’m trying to deal with that personality, and I’m still having a problem with that.

NOTEBOOK: That’s part of the fun though, right? Finding a solution to that problem.

GEHR: I have to accept it, frankly. There’s something about it I don’t like, the wide image is clunky. Say if I want to cut, once it opens up, the emphasis is on the horizon, and it changes the dynamics. The wider the image, the more violence there are in movies, lighter sound, all in order to get beyond the point that…

NOTEBOOK: …the edits are jarring?

GEHR: Yes, and you need shorter takes, so it’s like clash, clash, clash. It’s an entirely new dynamic. I have to live with it, come to terms with it.

NOTEBOOK: Well, you don’t have to.

GEHR: But my camcorder is dying, so I will.


Ernie GehrTIFF 2009NYFF 2009WavelengthsFestival CoverageInterviewsLong Reads
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