I met Richard as my friend and I were taking down the exhibit of this project at Crow's Feet Commons. He was sitting on one of the sofas and asked me if the work was mine. Then he proceeded to offer his thoughts on the material, going as far as to offer me one of the truest and kindest bits of praise I've ever received. He referred to my portraits as "confrontational". I encounter many people who have some aversion to that word and that practice. I am not one of those people. Don't get me wrong, I don't seek out trouble, but I rarely avoid dealing with the situation at hand - no matter how difficult. And I can understand what Richard meant - I am presenting these people to you in a very honest and straightforward way, allowing - or maybe gently forcing - you to take them in as they are.
We spoke for several minutes and discussed photography and art. Richard showed me some of his own work on his website and we just kind of clicked right away like two matching puzzle pieces. He left an impression on me and the thought of inviting him to participate in this project excited me. So, I reached out via email the next day. He accepted immediately and we made an appointment to meet at his home the following week.
Richard toured me through his home and made me a cup of coffee and we talked and talked and talked. About art and design and photography and what it all may or may not mean. By the time we wrapped things up, we had spent nearly four hours together. And I can honestly say that every minute of it was a delight. As you'll see or hear below, Richard is articulate and kind, thoughtful, and wise. And he's funny. It was a pleasure to see him smile and laugh. And it was touching to see him shed tears. Due to a variety of circumstances, I don't have a patriarchal influence in my life. Talking with Richard gave me an idea of what it might be like to have a grandfather.
PS. Richard will be exhibiting some of his art at Crow’s Feet Commons in April. Be sure to carve out some time to take it in.
I was born in 1933. Which is auspicious, by the way - a lot of interesting things happened. The Nazi party rose to dominance in Germany. Was it 1939 that Germany invaded Poland? And I have very clear memories of the Second World War. When the war ended I was 12 years old - 1945. I had a conversation with a man yesterday at the coffee shop and he referred to people our age and I thought, No (laughs), your background is very different from mine.
Who are you and how would you describe yourself?
Well, my name's Richard Cork. The name Cork is not Irish; it comes from England. I'm a person. I'm a husband. And I'm a father. I'm a friend. And I'm an artist. Sort of in that order.
What concerns you and then what motivates you to do something about it? And I mean this in a social context.
Yeah, I understand what you're saying. What concerns me is a lack of kindness. And there are two things that I value very highly in people: kindness and intelligence. And when I mention intelligence, I don't mean IQ. I mean a deliberate attempt to be a good person and realize that you're not alone in the world; that you share it with a lot of other people. And these other people are more like me than unlike me. What I see externally - two arms, two legs, two eyes - is seen is virtually every human being in the world and in many animals. So, we're all connected - whether we realize it or not. All these people are brothers and sisters and some people I feel very close to with whom I've shared some kind of an experience or important event in my life - or transition, maybe. I may share this time with another person - perhaps never see them again - but they become a brother or sister as a result of that. Anyway, that's the way I see things.
So the connection you feel is the motivation for you?
Yeah.... yes. As I said earlier in our conversation, what I know best about myself I learned from people I know. Because of what they say, how they honor me. If someone listens closely to some point of view I have, I know that they respect my view of whatever the subject is. How else can we know who we are without other people?
Do you have a sense of purpose or a compulsion to live with intention?
Oh, yes. Without question. And most of it has to do with being an artist. When I was a kid I could draw better than most adults could draw at all. And that's been my life. I've gone in a lot of directions and I have a lot of interests and so on and when I was a youngster I used to tell adults who wanted to hear certain things that maybe I'd go into medicine. Or law. They wanted to hear that. But I knew I really wouldn't. (Laughs) Because if I said I was gonna be an artist, they'd think, Well, you're gonna starve to death. Which is hardly the case. I don't know where that idea comes from. It's some middle-class notion of what artists... who they are and what they do. Art's not real work, you see? That's what some people feel. Real work happens when you have to sweat and trouble yourself and strive. Well, you have to do that if you're an artist, too.
So, yeah, I think I live with intention. One morning at coffee we talked about legacy. What legacy could I leave or you leave or anyone else leave? I say kind of jokingly, after my wife has flushed my ashes down the toilet, within 15 minutes I will have been forgotten. Well, it's not really true, of course. First of all, there are people who care about me and I care about who are gonna feel a sense of loss. My son, for example, who's a lovely man. But also, maybe I have planted an idea in somebody's mind. Or perhaps someone has seen something about me as an artist, a person, or husband, or any of these other roles I play as examples for good living. If that's the case, that's it. So, that's purpose I think.
Do you have anything to say about what the source of that purpose might be? You have the sense of purpose, but where does it come from?
Well, it comes from being an artist, really. In my case. Another person might have a different story. I'm not gonna be a social leader or a business leader or a politician or any of those things. I'm not gonna write the world's great novel. The art I do is good - very good sometimes - but I don't know how it will be valued as time goes on. It'd be nice to be recognized.
And then values - how do we develop values? It's a slow acquisition. Much of it comes from other people for me. Teachers I've had when I was growing up. I had a Boy Scout master who has influenced my life, helped me to appreciate self-reliance - being able to cook a meal in the wilds; being able to point a rifle and hit a target. Dozens and dozens of people. Of course teachers; all the way through public school, especially college - college was a major event in my life; I was required to read things and think about things I never even knew existed before and it definitely changed my life. And the question you just asked has been asked by people forever - starting with people like Plato, for example; he was asking essentially the same questions. Especially Aristotle. So, this has been going on forever.
I'm sure that's how I'll be remembered - is "Plato, Aristotle, and Langlais."
(Laughs) Yeah, for example.
What do we mean to each other, individual to individual? Maybe not you and me, per se, but that's a fine example.
Well, you and I hardly know each other, except we both enjoy authentic, heartfelt conversation. So, you get intimate very quickly that way. But I enjoy those conversations - sometimes with complete strangers. People will express themselves in a way and I learn a little something about them and their lives. Mostly it's positive, but sometimes I run across something... a person has grown up with a great deal of negativity in their lives and it's hard for them to see the world in any other way.
Do you think we have some sense of obligation to one another or we owe each other anything?
Yes and no. You might be having problems in your life with your significant other or business or something like that. Unless [there is] something I can do directly to help - some advice or point you in the direction of somebody who can help - it's none of my business and I'm not in the world to tell people how to live their lives. My job in your life is just honor you for who you are.
Things seems pretty combative and polarized - divisive - these days. What does it mean to you to be part of community given those facts and given all the differences that we have?
Well, it seems to me those are two different themes. If you're talking about current politics, that's the result of politicians manipulating us and that's gone on forever. It serves a purpose and it serves the purpose of a narrow audience: the wealthy, the powerful, the wannabes, and so on.
On a personal level, we could be among a group of people who are quite different from each other and some people might be a little challenging in their attitudes or something. But if we listen to each other... I don't mean just hear, but actually listen and try to understand what the person is saying, especially if I can relate it to myself and my own experience; sometimes in the form of a story - that often helps. I think respecting a person just because they're human is sufficient.
There's this word mensch. In German it means mankind or a person. In Yiddish it implies a person worth emulating and admiring. I'll talk about a true mensch, for example. We don't have a word quite like that. We have many words we can put together. And I think to aspire to be a mensch in the Yiddish sense of it is a very worthwhile goal.
Do you have a sense of responsibility to affect positive change?
Well, probably. And I say that because I don't know that I'm making any kind of positive change at all. Outside of being the best person that I can and being the best kind of artist I can, I don't know how else to do things. You know, if you come to me and sincerely want advice on a subject I know something about, that's a different matter, of course. But generally, I can't say I do have a sense of responsibility. But, as an individual, I can affect others in a very limited way.
What's your overall take throughout your many years on this Earth of cultural change?
Oh, yeah, that's interesting. I'm really a child of the '50s. I graduated from college in 1956, for example. Long before your parents ever thought of entering the world. That certainly colors my thinking to some extent. Some people look back on the '50s as being this wonderful time when Eisenhower was president and things were pleasant and charming and so on. Not true - any more or less than any other time. Racial discrimination was rampant. Homosexual people were persecuted. I mean actually would be beat up - police would beat up homosexual people. A lot of nasty things were going on. It's like any other time, probably. But I keep going back to these very simple things: family, friends, work. That's at the heart of everything for me.
What do you want?
Oh, I'm doing it. I've been doing it all my life. I've had dreams of being famous, for example.
Here's something that's interesting. I don't know if we got into this when we first met. I'm a strong believer in visualization and that is for years I put myself to sleep by having some pleasant fantasy. Having a certain kind of studio space that would have certain things... and one of them - I've told this story many times - was having a really nice car and driving - I lived on the San Francisco peninsula at that time - and driving to San Francisco and then having dinner with a good friend - his name was David - and then he and I would go to a concert. And he had this taste for old music. I don't mean old-fashioned music, but Baroque and Rococo music... opera and that kind of stuff. And then coming home after ending a very satisfying, pleasant time. And I arrived at a point where I could no longer help myself go to sleep with that pleasant fantasy. And the reason was I was doing it. And that's happened over and over again in my life. The only challenge is sometimes the reality doesn't exactly, precisely match my fantasy. It takes a form that I hadn't expected. But those things really happen. They have happened to me.
I don't believe in magic or spiritualism or anything like that, but I think we can set ourselves up for a good outcome or a not-so-good outcome depending on our point of view. You can choose to be an optimist or a pessimist. It doesn't matter because the fact is life is exactly what it is. So, however you view it is almost irrelevant. So why not be an optimist? Why not be an idealist? Why not? Someone might say, Well, you're not looking at reality. I certainly am. Just as much as the pessimist as looking at another kind of reality. But life is whatever it is. Change is true and it's constant. And if we can't adapt and embrace that notion then life gets a little difficult for us. So anyway, that's kind of my attitude towards it.
Do you have anything else that you'd like to put out there?
Well, can't we all just get along (laughs)? Well, there's something to it. Why do people hate each other? Why are people afraid of each other? Why should anybody care whether somebody's transgender, black, or purple - who cares?! I mean, they're just people. And people say, Well, god hates homosexuality? And I think, Then why did he make homosexual people? Why carry around all of that baggage? Let it all go and just be a mensch, I say.
I've started a habit of having people ask me something if they want to to end these interviews, so is there anything in particular on your mind that you'd like to ask me?
Well, we had a heartfelt conversation before this interview began, so I learned a lot about you. What attracted you to photography when you first started?
ACT: That's great. I don't know. I don't know how it began. I have a memory that doesn't tell much of a story. This would have been in the early '90s, I guess, maybe the late '80s - I was young - and I must have had a point and shoot family camera of some kind. And I had gone on a hike - this was in New England - with my father. Some sort of spring hike where there was still some snow, but things were starting to warm. And I took a picture of - today it's a picture I would never even dream of taking... it was quite silly, I think - but it was of these red spring branches with melting ice. And I got the film developed and saw the picture and thought that it was quite nice and there was some sort of a photo contest at my school. I picked out a matte that matched the red and put it in a frame and entered it into this contest. And, for some reason or another, placed in some capacity. I don't exactly know why but it seems that that very basic and very simple thing encouraged me to think that I had some sort of knack for this. And there wasn't much between then and my wanting to go to photography school many years later. This wasn't a recurring pattern. But I was drawn to it in a way that I can't quite explain and drawn to it in the same type of way that I'm curious about other people and I'm curious enough to have these interviews and take these photographs and talk about it in this public way. I don't really understand why. I didn't have a mentor or influence in my life that highly encouraged this pursuit... it's interesting. I think about it a lot. Some people have these very lovely paths that they can trace back to the origin and mine's a little bit more vague.
RC: (Laughs) Yeah, yours is probably more honest than some. More realistic.
ACT: Yeah, I don't think I'll ever be accused of not being honest.
RC: No, I don't think so, either. It was very clear to me when I first met you that you have an air of authenticity about you that's compelling, I think. I'd ask another question. What prompted you - you touched on it a little bit earlier - but what prompted you to begin this initiative of community in this particular way you're handling it?
ACT: The origins, again, are real hazy. From photography school - which was a very formal training period where we were kind of primed to get into the classic photography, New York photography, fashion photography - I had thought that I was gonna take pictures of adventure - outdoor adventure, sport, and skiing - to combine some interests - photography and my love for outdoors. But as I went into photography school the thought of it just was very boring to me and it was also pretty saturated at the time. And my interest in people was just outweighing my interest in being that type of photographer. So I went to photojournalism school and I worked with some of the best - really some of the best - photojournalists in the world. And worked for guys that are part of some pretty for real agencies. Shook hands with James Nachtwey and this kind of thing. And just really started to feel drawn towards that journalism photography. And at the same time, I encountered some other projects - The Thought Project by a Danish photographer is the one I can definitely... not something I want to say I copied, but I can definitely see some origins to my work there.
And I have a tendency to go through some pretty hard times. I'm not sure what that's about but usually some creativity comes out of these hard times and the first time was in Boston and I got the idea to photograph a stranger every day. So I pursued a project called I Heart Strangers, where I photographed a stranger every single day for 625 days in a row. I did that as I moved to Denver. I got pretty beat up by that process and I quit the project in 2010 and very soon afterwards regretted the quitting. But then for six or seven years, I was trying to come up with a new idea. And all of the ideas that I could make or think of or whatever - however you talk about ideas - were just the same project. To the point where I even tried it again and it just didn't feel right. So, after another life upset, I was wandering around the country and I came to Bend just on a lark and was here for two weeks and was just out in the woods and the idea for this came to me. And, again, it's hard to understand why, but it landed on me and I understood it and I knew what it might mean, so I just dove in. You were talking about how your wife has an idea and she just goes and does it - I think I might be that person, too. And I just started doing it and then, of course, it evolves and grows and now this is interview 113.
RC: That's substantial. Well, you said something earlier about feeling a lack of community, so maybe you're creating a community. It comes from yourself. Your own need for that. The people you've interviewed, have you continued visiting with them and so on in some cases?
ACT: Yeah, in some cases they've become friends. In some cases, you know, the process hasn't uncovered any greater points of commonality other than the obvious ones of our being human.
RC: Well, that's enough sometimes isn't it?
ACT: Yeah, it is enough sometimes. And I think that's part of my point and you explained it quite articulately. It is enough that we're both human. I think maybe it's even enough that we're here now at the same time even if we're not human. I feel a sense of obligation to try to get through this in a nice way.
RC: Getting through this - you mean life? And what do you mean "a nice way"? May I ask? Who's interviewing who now (laughs)?
ACT: I think at first I owe you and whoever I encounter decency and kindness. I'm ready for that. I'm primed for that. A lot happens after that and I'm often pretty surprised at the treatment that I am given. And, of course, you can take all these off roads and talk about perception and all this, but my experience is that I'm often pretty surprised. And then what's curious to me is that I'm repeatedly surprised - so I don't know what that means about me - by acts of unkindness and indecency. And I guess that's the filter... that stuff stands out to me. Not because I'm seeking the negative. I think it's actually quite the opposite. I've got my eyes open for the good stuff and I kind of keep getting surprised.
RC: Sometimes somebody you've known for a long time can surprise you. My own wife, for example, sometimes comes up with ideas or observations that surprise me... after almost 40 years. Yeah, and certainly a stranger might bring an experience or something to you that enlightens in some way, perhaps. So, is this interview still going or should we cut it off?
ACT: Yeah, I guess this is a good place. Just leave it with some questions.
RC: That sounds like Aristotle to me (laughs).