In Conversation: Saul Bromberger + Sandra Hoover
Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover have spent more than 35 years developing a shared sensibility centred around their compassionate worldview. Self-described outsiders, Bromberger and Hoover seek to understand themselves through their art practice, resulting in a remarkable record of American society as witnessed from the margins. Photographing subjects both individually and collaboratively – early Gay Pride parades, outlier populations of rural and urban communities, the impact of AIDS – they make compositions that show the interconnectedness of humanity.
At the beginning of September, I interviewed the artists to talk about their lives together, their collaborative art practice, and to learn more about their photographic series that we are offering to collectors exclusively via FFOTO.
Craig D’Arville, FFOTO Co-founder
Craig D’Arville: Let’s begin by talking about your paths to making photographs. Saul, you grew up in Israel and emigrated to the USA when you were still a kid. How did that experience guide you towards photography?
Saul Bromberger: As a teenager, I was just trying to basically survive in high school. All through high school I was introverted; I didn't have a social life. My parents had a restaurant. We had one of those immigrant families where I was helping my family run the business. I was cooking, and on weekends I ran the restaurant. But I took an elective in my last semester of high school, and it was photography. And then I took a class while I was studying at Moorpark College, outside Los Angeles, and that's when it really started for me. The teacher I had – John Gray – was, and to this day remains, an integral part of my life. He's become a mentor and a close friend to me and Sandy.
I went to Moorpark College for three-and-a-half years. It had just an immense influence on me; things my parents could not give me. It just opened up my world. It taught me about empathy and how to express that through photography. And how to tell stories; how to connect with people. Then when I went to San Jose State University, starting in 1980 / 81, I met a series of friends who were really visually sophisticated. Each of them taught me something of how to see the world, and how to connect with people, how to observe, how to interpret. I learned a lot from them. I learned how to see in layers. How to have a bunch of things happening at once in the frame; how to tell a story.
Craig: Sandra, how did you find your way to photography?
Sandra Hoover: I was extremely shy growing up. Extremely. I hated high school. So, my way out was moving to Switzerland when I was 17, as an exchange student. And that put me in an interesting situation, I didn't speak German very well so I became an observer to a culture that I wasn't familiar with. I had a camera, a Pentax, and I started taking pictures over there.
Then I came back to America. I thought I wanted to be a Marine biologist – I have all these weird stories and paths in my life... Even though I'm a born American, I've never really felt like I fit in here. So again, Saul and I have similar takes on American culture from that outsider perspective. And I just started taking pictures as a street photographer, different events, and then I got a job at the same newspaper Saul was working at, the Hayward Daily Review, in a San Francisco suburb in 1984.
Craig: Is that when your artistic partnership began?
Sandra: Yes, that’s when we entered each other’s orbit.
Saul: We started being together. We went on some events, road trips. I would develop Sandy’s film at the newspaper lab and I would roll it out on the light table and I would see, "Damn, she's getting better pictures than some of the people I'm working with." Or she would shoot life, and just the way people are interacting with each other. Her take on things, it was different. It was a quieter approach. It had subtleties, it had layers, the way she was seeing. And I was not seeing that from the people I was working with. They were producing more “high impact” photos – assignment-oriented shots. And I'm seeing Sandy’s negatives; I'm printing some of them for her. And I began to think, "Wow. I wonder, can we work together? Can we do things together?" I had done, on my own, the San Francisco gay pride parade in 1984. And as it came up in '85, I said, "Come with me. This is a great event going on. Come enjoy it." So, we started collaborating on the project about the gay pride parades. That's how it all started.
Craig: At that time, were you already seeing yourselves as documentary photographers?
Sandra: No, I don't think so. At the time it was all happening, no one had any interest in our work because it was too familiar to people – too “of the moment”. But both Saul and I realized that what we were making was going to be art. In history, at some point, this work would have a place, and right now it's starting to find that place. But at the time, I don't think we approached it as creating photo essays or anything. It turned out like that organically.
Saul: Honestly, back then – I’ve thought a lot about this – I think it's my development just as a person that was happening. I had a hard time creating narratives, stories. I was more into the single photo. Photographers who I really love, it was the single photos that they made that excited me. Robert Frank and Bruce Davidson. I loved Davidson’s East 100th Street photo essay. And I love the essays that W. Eugene Smith did; Minamata, especially, had a huge effect on me. But back then, I was more into going after the single photo. Only in the last 15 years, I’d say, am I more into following a narrative. And with the AIDS hospice work, that was about making a narrative series.
Craig: Sandy, when you first met, Saul was looking at your negatives and seeing everything you shot. Was Saul sharing his contact sheets with you for feedback? How did you become familiar with Saul’s eye?
Sandra: I was nosy. Saul wasn't as obsessive back then as he is now, and we were just consumed by photography. And so I would look at his contact sheets, I would look at his negatives, I would be in there while he was printing and giving him a hard time. What I saw with him is – I couldn't figure out why Saul was working for a newspaper because he wasn't a newspaper photographer; he wasn't a journalist. I could tell from just the first few pictures he showed me. I'm like, "This is a great photo, but how do you keep your job?" Some of these people who are still friends of mine, they were consumed by the news side of it. They sleep with a police scanner and I'm like, "That is ridiculous." My thing was more of an approach of fine art, a narrative, even though I didn't know what it was called at the time – feelings, that was more where I was coming from. I couldn’t care less about news and all that. I loved news, but not in my photos.
Craig: As a creative duo, and regarding the subjects you photograph, do you tactically decide who pursues specific shots? Are there any guidelines that you both follow?
Sandra: I think particularly when I was younger, when I look back at pictures of myself, I was totally disarming. I could do things, making photos and being a woman... I'm getting to the point now where I'm at the age of invisibility. It's a different way of disarming subjects. But back then I could walk right up to people, and they were not bothered by me at all, where I could sense if I was a male of a certain type, it could become an issue. And so, I would just smile and talk to people – and I can get on with people, talking to them. I think that was a benefit of me being female.
Saul: Our country's divided now, but Sandy can talk to conservatives just like she can talk to ultra-liberal folks. She has this ability to blend in and disarm people; to not be threatening. Sandy has a kindness about her where I don't think people feel threatened by her. And that ability is what allows her to make these really intimate portraits of people, or intimate scenes of people, or events, or situations. It's that ability for her to blend in.
Craig: Saul, talking to you today, you seem to share Sandy’s approachable calmness.
Saul: I’ve worked on it. When we first got to know each other, Sandy told me, "You gotta work on your intonation, because, well, you're from the east coast and it's not going to work on the west coast to talk like that." I had to learn to tone it down. Just not be so blunt. So I learned to listen. I became more socially aware, self-aware, introspective, all those things. I think part of it is just part of growing up, getting older, having kids. My late twenties – we were together a couple of years by then – and she was still saying, "You’ve got to learn to tone it down. Listen to your intonation." And I didn't know what Sandy was talking about at first, but then she would show me.
Craig: Sometimes a photographer is attempting to answer some of life’s questions through their art practice. Does that apply with the photographs you make?
Sandra: Oh, I definitely think that's been my whole thing with photography – trying to figure out more about myself than the subject sometimes. I’m kind of, in a way, using photographing people as a form of therapy. To find out more about them, but about myself also. I think Saul's much more engaged than I am.
Saul: I've learned to be more engaged. When I had all those pictures on the light table that I was obsessing over, I was studying people. Their behavior, their mannerisms, how people behave. As I said before, in high school I barely said a word, didn't have a social life. So I didn't have the experiences a lot of high school kids have. Beach parties, dating, going to the prom. I didn't have any of it. I think I, at first, used photography as a therapeutic tool to connect with people. So I could become more social.
Sandra: I think as an experienced photographer, the one lesson I would tell younger photographers is: To be a photographer, you have to listen. You have to hone great listening – observation – skills. If you really want to find out about that person, or that landscape – or anything – you have to listen. If you want to really tell someone's story, then you need to find out what attracted you to them in the first place. That’s something I learned when we began the AIDS project. People want you to know them. And then once a connection has been made, I can take an honest photograph. Photography has its limitations, big time, but to make a photograph that really speaks some type of truth, I think that's the biggest thing I would tell people. To slow down and to listen.
Craig: Are you thinking about any photographs in particular right now?
Sandra: There are two photographs that I’m thinking about; both from our series House of Angels: Living with AIDS at the Bailey-Boushay House, from 1992-1997. One picture, the portrait of Carl with a painting of him in the background; and the photo of a mom embracing her son at a memorial service.
Craig: Let’s talk about some more about your photographs we’re offering via FFOTO. Tell me about “Mariposa, California” from Our American Portraits: 1978-2006.
Saul: I was taking my first vacation from my newspaper job. I didn’t know Sandy yet. I liked to drive and didn’t know where I was going, just wherever the road might take me. I ended up in a small town called Mariposa. I’m waiting for my burger and fries and then, right opposite me, is this incredible scene – and I hadn’t brought my camera in with me. I ran to my car, came back in, and the pose is still the same. It was a real quiet scene and I was hoping that they wouldn’t see me. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. I didn’t shoot a lot of frames or anything, but I have to tell you, it’s the most difficult print I’ve ever made – just technically, it’s 10 seconds of basic exposure, and then 12 minutes of burning in all the different parts. It’s through this print, and some others, that I learned to print in an interpretive way. Asking myself, “What do I want this picture to say? What do I want the viewer to feel? What did I feel?”
Craig: Is “Break Dancer” from Our American Portraits as well?
Saul: Yes. “Break Dancer” is an outtake from 1985. I was on assignment for the newspaper. I saw these three boys, African-American boys, 12, 13 years old, at this break dancing competition. I was enthralled being there. It was just, "I can't believe I'm here! And I can photograph this!" And I was always amazed at the fact that what I saw, I could deliver to a newspaper audience. But I never submitted this image to the paper. I had an idea in my head of what was appropriate to submit, and what the newspaper was interested in publishing, and you know what? It was a mistake. I think I didn't give enough credit to the newspaper audience, and to my editors, and to my boss. I should have turned this stuff in, and I didn't.
Sandra: Things look different with the perspective of time. And familiar, too, like “Election Night, Republican Headquarters”, from 1982.
Saul: That was Election Night, 1982 in Century City, in L.A. I was just looking at what was in front of me, seeing this couple dance in matching ladybug suits. I wanted to capture their body language and the expressions of their faces – of upper-class elitism, wealth, status. She knows she's being photographed. She enjoys being photographed. She feels entitled to be photographed. It’s another one of those shots where I’m learning about people’s behaviour.
Craig: What do you hope that viewers take away from Our American Portraits?
Sandra: We’re still struggling with that question, to be honest.
Saul: I would say, empathy. Empathy.
Craig: Empathy is evident, in abundance, in your photographs. Your interest in LGBTQ+ lives, and the effects of AIDS, is the focus of three important series. What drew you towards this community?
Sandra: If we hadn’t shot the Pride parades, our work with Seattle’s Bailey-Boushay House wouldn’t have happened. I know that. So we went from the San Francisco scene, at a time when I was encouraging Saul to quit his job – it just wasn’t the work he should have been making – and…
Saul: And I knew nothing about freelancing, but Sandra had family in Seattle – I really liked that city – so we made a decision that I would quit my job and we would move up to Seattle and work together as a team.
Sandra: Going along with doing the team thing, I was starting to get bored of San Francisco. It's a very different city now, which I don't actually care for. Back then, there were a lot of artists, a lot of what it's remembered for. You could do anything there and no one would bat an eye, which I love, but also I wanted to see a different part of the world. I grew up, part of the time, spending summers in the Seattle area.
Saul: And in a real way, the photograph “Pam Lives with Her Family of 9 in a School Bus” led us to House of Angels-Living with AIDS at the Bailey-Boushay House: 1992-1995. The Director of Communications at the hospital that administered the Bailey-Boushay House had seen Sandy’s portrait of Pam in a local weekly and he asked us if we could do similar work for them within the context of an AIDS hospice. So, every time we do a presentation on the Bailey-Boushay House series, we start by showing the portrait of Pam.
Sandra: I'm not a religious person at all. I have to say that. Not at all. But I feel like something else is deciding our path. I had the same feeling with the Pride parade shots. AIDS was just going nuts at that time. Everyone was afraid of everyone. It was like, “I'm going to show the world there's nothing to be afraid of. We need empathy; compassion for people that have AIDS and just… nobody deserves it.” That was my motivating core belief behind all those photos. And again, I think the further we all get away from that period, the more importance these pictures will have.
Saul: We had to ask ourselves, “Do we have it in us to capture this, and tell the story of this house, and the story of what's happening to people here? Do we have that ability, that storytelling ability?” Also, I needed to know how to print these. So I printed. Sandra would develop the film and do proof prints, and then I would make the prints. I remember Ansel Adams talked once about printing being like a symphony, and that’s a real good correlation. I saw making those prints as conducting a symphony and if I don’t end up with a print that sings, then it isn’t quite there yet.
Craig: What’s next for your archive of 35+ years of your shared photography practice?
Saul: The Dolph Briscoe Center of American History, at the University of Texas, is taking our archives. We are deep into cataloguing things for them right now. Plus, we’re still making photographs. In August we did a photo shoot for a wonderful organization we love in San Francisco called Openhouse. It’s a place for seniors in the LGBTQ+ community, and other seniors as well. We want to do portraits of the residents. We love being in this community.
Sandra: Seniors especially. I used to call them The Old Warriors of the LBGTQ+ Community because their experiences were so much different than that of a 20-year-old today. And it’s not like it’s a better or worse experience of anything, it’s just different, and I want to record that group of people before it’s too late.
Saul: I remember something I felt 20 minutes into my first gay pride parade, looking around at the thousands of people on Market Street, and back then you could walk on the street with the marchers. At the age of 27 I thought, “I should document this”, because I felt tremendous emotion for a group of people marching for their civil rights. At the time, your boss could fire you if he found out you marched in a Pride parade! And yet, there were all these people; there was so much love around. AIDS was just starting, different organizations were starting to protest to bring attention to the crisis… and then I met Sandy, like I was telling you, and I said, “Sandy, come with me to this parade. It’s amazing.”