John Francis Peters is a documentary photographer and picture editor based out of New York. “Committed to unsettled living,” his work focuses on domestic and international communities far and wide. His series about Newburgh, NY was developed in collaboration with the ADP workshop, and was shown in Pittsburgh, PA in October 2012.
Ward Long: Can you tell me a little bit about your library? Where is it? How long have you had this studio in Woodstock, and how often do you get to spend time with your books?
John Francis Peters: Well, currently all my stuff, including the library, is in a small studio I’m renting from a friend upstate. I get up there about once a week for two to three days when not traveling. I have been bouncing around the area over the past five years, from New Paltz to Kingston and now temporarily Woodstock. It’s always funny moving with the books. They’re one of my only material possessions now. I don’t have the vast library of an avid collector, but keeping books in my living space is highly important to me. I guess at this point they are riding through a state of transition since I’m always staying with friends or traveling. The moments I get to revisit the books are always a relief, like I’m opening them again for the first time.
WL: What were some of your earliest acquisitions?
JFP: The earliest books were from my mother. I think she first gave me The Grand Trunk Road by Raghubir Singh and then Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph. I got these maybe six years before I ever touched a camera. I just found the images intriguing and relaxing. I would spend hours with them, admiring how the camera could make the world seem so obscure.
Spread from Eugene Richard’s Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue
As my interest grew in social documentary photography and I started practicing, I began collecting Eugene Richard’s books like Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue, Dorchester Days and Americans We. He communicated incredible intimacy through his books, and I wanted to study each image thoroughly. I got more and more interested in photo books, and I would buy one here and there when I could afford it. Books like Zona by Carl de Keyzer, Landscape A by Nicholas Faure, The Valley by Larry Sultan, From The Sunshine State by Alex Webb and Winterreise by Luc Delahaye were all super inspirational acquisitions.
Spread from Michael Schmidt’s Berlin Nacht 45
WL: What are some books you’ve added recently?
JFP: Because I’ve been committed to unsettled living, I haven’t collected any over the past year. I think the most recent would be Berlin Nach 45 by Michael Schmidt, Trinity by Carl De Keyzer and Katherine Avenue by Larry Sultan. Each of these artists consistently brings a creative and articulate approach to documentary photography, and I really connect with that. I also admire the acute focus on the form of the image and how important that aspect is in communicating the story.
I’ve also been quite engaged with books by Robert Adams. His writing has been an incredible source to make a connection with a larger story about our lives and photography. Those moments when I feel really confused about the medium and its’ industry (the hangups, dead ends, pessimistic outlooks), I pick up Adams’ work and it’s like a jolt of life. His images are full of purity and truth; again, I remember why I’m so committed to photography, why it connects for me on a deeper level.
Spread from Raghubir Singh’s The Grand Trunk Railroad: A Passage Through India
WL: Were any books given as gifts? Does that affect how you think of those books (and their content) now?
JFP: The Grand Trunk Road by Raghubir Singh, the gift from my mother I mentioned earlier, is a book I’ve actually been revisiting a lot. There will always be something about that book and how she presented it to me. I remember when she gave it to me, she thought the photos were so cool and opened up to this image of an overturned truck. I found the frame so entirely bizarre, the colors, foreign context and how the scene was visualized, which at that point did not even really register for me. It was just absolutely striking and probably subconsciously part of the reason I became a photographer. I often revisit that work before I begin projects, especially when I travel abroad.
WL: How do you feel your library as a whole influences your creative process?
These books are more important to me than anything I own, probably second only to my personal image archive. I’ve taken great inspiration from all of the books at different times in my life. I feel like my library is a place to settle down and reconnect with the medium on personal terms. It’s a place of meditation, I look at these books in a spiritual sense. The books that have really inspired me will in some way always be part of my process. I think that’s the beauty of books, they are teachers that I can return to for guidance throughout my life.
Spread from Carl De Keyzer’s Zona
WL: Can you tell me more about a book you find particularly special?
JFP: Well it would be hard to focus on one special book, but I feel like all of the books I’ve collected by Carl De Keyzer are outstanding, starting with Zona. That book in particular flipped my whole outlook on photography. The work in Zona became a creative beacon for me. The way he navigated the subject of Siberian prison camps, the incredible color palette, his masterful incorporation of artificial light and moments he composed. I just felt like he took all the rules and twisted them, sculpted his own point of view out of normal script. He’s in the pictures and not, what’s real and what’s staged, its feels like he was able to picture another dimension. That book cracked open possibilities like no other book.