CH@T: Noted photographer, author to highlight Chatham Literacy’s spring event

Rosenthal’s photos, stories preserve life as he sees it


John Rosenthal’s life’s work has included photography (he’s been featured in galleries across the nation), books, dozens of commentaries on National Public Radio and time as a college professor. On April 5, he’ll be the featured speaker at Chatham Literacy’s “Spring for Literacy” event at Governors Club in Chapel Hill.

Tickets for the event are $100, with all proceeds benefitting Chatham Literacy’s work in Chatham County. Tickets are on sale Feb. 1; for more information about the event, go to

Rosenthal sat with CN+R Publisher and Editor Bill Horner III for a wide-ranging interview last week. The video of the full conversation can be seen on the News + Record’s Facebook page at In the transcript from the interview below, Rosenthal discusses his evolution as a photographer and writer. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Tell me about your literary journey…

I think everybody has their own first book, and that (Willard Motley’s “Knock on Any Door”) was my first book. “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse” — that was Motley’s motto. And I adopted that at 13!

But anyway, from that point on, reading just became a central fact, and when I was introduced by a teacher to [novelist William] Faulkner, everything changed. Then I realized — and I was older then, I was probably 15 or 16 — I realized that writing was, and could be, an act of deep consciousness. And you could explore what it is to be a human being.

How did your parents respond to your growth and to your reading books like that at that age?

Well, they didn’t understand it. They were well-read people, to a certain extent ... I loved reading when I was a kid — books like “Marjorie Morningstar” [a 1955 novel by Herman Wouk), and things like that.

But when I became a more sophisticated reader, my father, in particular, had objections. I remember coming home once and telling him that my favorite poet was Dylan Thomas. And he said he was just a bum. “He died in the streets a bum,” he said. “Why would you care about a writer like that? He has probably 45 people who read his work. You should be reading James Michener, who has millions of readers — not to mention that fact that he gave a million dollars to UNICEF.”

Now, how do you answer an argument like that? You just simply go on and read the books you need to read. My mother … she didn’t understand the sophisticated stories I was reading in novels, but she always wanted to hear about them. She always encouraged me.

You had this taste for good literature, but you also developed an eye as a photographer. You’re noted more for your photography than your writing, so talk about how you got into photography and how your journey behind the lens started ...

I was teaching at UNCG, and I’d been teaching there a couple of years. I met a German professor, Jean Morrison, who was an astonishing intellect … he was a poet, scholar and activist. And when we met, we talked just about all night long, and he said, “You know what? What you need to do is learn about photography.”

And he handed me a book by Robert Frank called “The Americans.” And he said, “Look at this.” And I looked at it, and I turned the page, and then turned another.

He said, “No, no, you’re going too fast! Think of them as poems — they’re full of tension, they’re full of meaning, they’re full of humor.”

So you know, thinking about that, and looking at photographs, it wasn’t a stretch that when I started to take photographs a couple of years later — not as a photographer, but as somebody who liked photography — I already had a kind of a point of view about photography.

I didn’t want to take photographs about finishing lines, or natural landscapes — the kind of pictures that, say, my parents would like. I wanted to take pictures that were existentially rich.

But keep in mind that I was also devoted to literature more than anything. So the idea that a photograph could actually be connected to a story, or to the suggestion of a story, or that a photograph could be suggestive of a metaphor and be a metaphor itself — all those kinds of ideas infiltrated into how it was that I photographed.

And then Morrison said to me, when I went off, he said, “You’re not going to take a good photograph for a few years … It’s a discipline, it’s a language.”

And it’s true. And so, over time, when I discovered New York City, I suddenly felt that I was on turf that I could have been raised on. And around the city, I suddenly felt that I was connected to myself. And then I began to take pretty good photographs.

Anyone who has looked at your work recognizes really quickly your sense for framing shots. What have you learned about framing photographs and capturing something with your pictures?

I have one theory. That was just a theory, and I’ve never heard it expressed before. But I was determined that a photograph had to have three things going on simultaneously.

To me, you look at a mountain, you look at a tree … you’ve got one thing going on, maybe two things. But the idea [for me] was how would I pack the visual frame with information? That was the problem.

Of course, the other problem was that I wanted to take photographs like [French photographer Henri] Cartier-Bresson, and I hadn’t discovered what it is that I feel needs to be disclosed — because every photographer has to have the thing that’s who they are, discovering who you are. So I was always working on that notion of a kind of packed visual field with no dead space at all.

There’s a famous quote. I think it might have been Robert Capa, who said it — “If it’s not good enough, you’re not close enough.” And I began to use a wide-angle lens, because a wide-angle lens could pull in sort of the shimmering edge of the world in which my subject existed. And that could add a kind of historical resonance that otherwise would be just a photograph of a person without a world. So I always wanted that world.

And eventually, I sort of stopped taking pictures of people, because I didn’t feel that I had the right to do that. And then you start looking at objects that contain latently a story that is, of course, only suggested. Not a story that’s told.

And a lot of your work captures a sense of loss. I’m thinking about your Lower 9th Ward photos from New Orleans. Is that intentional? Is that something that just particularly interested you?

Well, that’s the richest question you could ask. When I was learning how to take photographs, as I was leaving Chapel Hill — and there was essentially no history in Chapel Hill; there wasn’t even a history on the faces of the people you would see — they were all 20 years old, or 17…

And you go to the city [New York] and all of a sudden, you’ve got history everywhere. You’ve got history in all these strange faces … old people, young people; people from different countries who look differently. But you also had a landscape that was always in a state of tension. And this is something that I realized, after about six months, that the city was under siege.

Progress was always the problem. Developers were the problem. And I had an eye from the very beginning of the sort of fragile entities, without actually putting it into words, I thought that were going to disappear, or that they wouldn’t last.

I would take pictures of Ukrainian guys playing backgammon in Tompkins Square. I would take pictures of the windows of Jewish bakeries — these dusty windows. I take pictures of seltzer bottles in the wooden crates on the back of trucks. Or the Italian Seaman’s club on Mulberry Street.

And I realized early on that perhaps the richest function that a photograph has is the act of preservation. Because it’s the only way — I mean, you know, nothing is left finally. Look at your parents. Look at your picture of your mother, when she was 5. You know, it’s the photograph that you’ve got.

So that was always kind of basic to me, to photograph that which was potentially going to disappear. And I always felt that that tension — there’s that little bit of a tension between the present and the future, the past and the present. I’ve always wanted that in in my work.

And of course, that was the primary function of my photographs in New Orleans, because the Lower 9th Ward and already halfway disappeared, and I went down to archive what was left and what would disappear in a matter of months. Because I never took the photographs in New Orleans without the sound of a dump truck in the background. So it’s always just been basic to me.

“Rescue the Perishing” is a hymn that’s a beautiful phrase — “rescue the perishing.” Photography does that very well. Or as well as it can, which I think is very well.

What will you be sharing when you come speak at the Chatham Literacy’s “Spring for Literacy” event in April?

I’ll probably focus on what I suppose you could call the joy of literacy. I’ll be talking to some extent about the mystery of writing and how I learned how to do it. You just learn something along the way; that’s kind of what I’ll talk about. I’ll also talk about doing radio commentaries — I did probably close to 400 radio commentaries for WUNC and at least 60 for [NPR’s] All Things Considered. And learning how to tell stories that reach out into the general public, three-minutes stories — and then unlearning all of that to write a book, right?