‘The exuberance of it all’: Photographing obsession
A conversation with photographer Adam Krause
I first learned about Adam Krause while obsessively researching Nazi skinhead culture in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, marking the first time that the type of counterproductively neurotic behavior to which I am naturally prone has actually yielded something beautiful, inspiring and, in fact, productive. I was new to Greenpoint, and at our housewarming party, a friend’s boyfriend approached me to inquire about a stream of letters spray-painted on the garage door across the street — indecipherable scrawls in white that I had only ever noticed for their carelessness, the juvenility of their tilt. “Those are Nazi runes,” he said conspiratorially. “Watch your back around here.”
Skinhead culture exists in small pockets everywhere, and Brooklyn is no exception. (In any case, my general feeling about this sort of advice — sounding as it does like a subtitle from a poorly translated gangster film — is that it is irritating rather than frightening, alarmist rather than actionable.) But I am a curious person; who among us would not Google?
Google I did, and Krause’s portrait series “Greenpoint Brooklyn Nazi Skinheads” was one of the first things to pop up. The photographs depict a small group of men — some in fatigues, some situated among Nazi paraphernalia, some with faces partially obscured by bandanas, and all of them very young and very muscular and looking girded and steely in the way that young men who are perhaps newly muscular (newly men) sometimes do. These are beautiful photographs, but they are not easy to look at. For anyone who has ever met a person with a number tattooed on her arm, or who has Holocaust-survivor grandparents — as Krause does; as I do — a bedroom festooned with swastikas can catalyze a visceral reaction, or at the very least, a sense of foreboding disgust.
I’m not the first person to ask about this, of course, but Krause is generous with his explanation. “All my grandparents were in the Holocaust,” he says. “I had all of that weight growing up. That being said, I’m a very unbiased person — I’m not judging anybody at all. I have done very stupid things in my life. While I obviously don’t subscribe to what those guys believe in, I understand where someone could have an opposing view to what mainstream culture and society have in mind. I’m really good at removing myself from the situation, and not having to express any emotion.”
Overall, Krause’s approach is one of compassion and curiosity rather than judgment. “Greenpoint Brooklyn Nazi Skinheads” is unsettling and enraging and provocative, but it’s sad, too. One senses that these are young, dumb kids trapped by circumstances beyond ideology. This isn’t an excuse, but there’s a tenderness to their portraits, an unquestionable human ambiguity.
Krause is thirty years old and a Florida native. He is soft-spoken and thoughtful, and approaches mundane topics with a humble sense of wonder that is sweet and refreshing. A microbiology and psychology student in college, Krause took up photography relatively late in his academic career. In 2007 he moved to Brooklyn, where he met the subjects of “Greenpoint Brooklyn Nazi Skinheads” at his local gym.
Krause is drawn to people with fringe interests, obsessions and hobbies, but he doesn’t aim to be a documentarian of the extreme. Whether working with alligator hunters in the deep Florida Bayou, members of New Jersey’s metal scene, or residents of the Brooklyn punk collective Market Hotel on the eve of its closing, Krause’s portraits are quiet and intimate. Viewing them can feel like walking into a room where a conversation is already in progress, and not turning a single head. (In certain series, such as “Brooklyn Social Clubs,” this could potentially be exactly what happened.) “In all of my work what I’m after is the idea of self-made comfort and safety, and the idea of people taking themselves out of mainstream culture on purpose,” he says. “Maybe their dress or politics can be judged by mainstream culture, but through that judgment they also feel comfort and safety. That almost leads to a self-created tribe, and I’m interested in that in general.”
“Alligator Hunting + Commerce,” Krause’s series on alligator hunters in Florida swampland, documents a handful of men and women who shoot alligators at short range for sport. The result of six months of research and two weeks of nonstop shooting, these photographs are triumphant, funny, surreal and grotesque. The playfulness and brutality of the natural world shine starkly.
Krause’s science background initially fostered an inclination toward taxonomy — a tendency that he seems to regret somewhat, though he notes that the history of photography is one of order and categorization. Early photographic practices had little to do with style or artistic differentiation, focusing instead on visually compartmentalizing information, including various types of people based on superficial (phenotypical; professional) characteristics.
“When I was learning photography, I was really interested in those photographers who were doing categorization, definitions through photographs,” Krause says. “I grew up very passionate about music, and I think there’s something in subcultures where there’s an idea to self-define, and that resonated with me. With that being said, I look back now at a lot of that work and I really dislike it. I try to get away from photographing someone on whom I’ve already put a definition.”
I’ve never heard an artist speak so candidly about the shortcomings or disappointments of his past work, but Krause is self-interrogating on this front — which makes sense, given that when I ask later about process and influence, he is charmingly and deliberately vague, opting for a description of process as accumulation of open experience, rather than a directed structure or philosophy.
“This is really hippie and horrible, I apologize,” he says, “but there is a very old-fashioned way of creating culture and tribes: ‘We dress the same, we are all lawyers, we’re all going to hang out together.’ Human beings in general need to have tribes and cultures of people who share their beliefs. But it seems like an old-fashioned way of finding friends. So some of these photos [from “Greenpoint Brooklyn Nazi Skinheads”] — I don’t know if I’d make those photos now.”
Most people I know have gone through a period of Smiths fandom, but Krause’s “Carnivores + Destructors” documents men who have taken it to a new level. Primarily shot in apartments and bedrooms, “Carnivores + Destructors” is occasionally referred to as a series of “Morrissey look-alikes,” though this seems to barely scrape the surface. Their appearance is a common thread, sure, but the prevailing themes of these photographs are obsession, compulsion and captivation. Maybe there’s alienation there, too, though I am reluctant to assign a narrative.
Obsession is something that Krause understands personally, though on a broader, practice-oriented level. “The projects I do are more — are me getting an idea, and then beating myself up in the head about it,” he says, and mimics an interior dialogue: “‘Go make this photo, I don’t want to make this photo, go make it go make it.’ I saw the skinhead dudes in Greenpoint long before I took those photos and never had enough courage to do it. It bottled up. Taking these photos is not for anyone else; it’s to prove to myself that I could do it.”
“What I’ve learned is not to second-guess your excitement. It’s okay not to be a master in a subject. You’re allowed to go into it with a blank slate and ask stupid questions. I think that a lot of work I do is influenced by that, going in with respect but also going in with some exuberance of it all.”
What I love about Krause’s photographs is that this exuberance, the sense of joy in the human condition, his curiosity and celebration of the unfamiliar, are captured in subtle ways. There’s a peacefulness to his work, a stillness and comfort. His subjects seem perfectly at home, at ease, in front of his lens.
“I was reading something — and Diane Arbus, and also the painter Balthus have talked about this, but this was an anthropologist talking — about how a lot of ancient cultures created masks of the grotesque,” he says, to this point. “And the mask of the grotesque celebrates the beautiful side of life, and the darker side of life. You have good days and bad days, and you also have in between days. Visually what we look at tends to just celebrate the bullshit-happy — and there’s nothing wrong with being happy — but there are quiet moments in life that aren’t sad and depressing, but I think people aren’t in touch with that.”
It’s a thought I carry, quietly, into the day.