Milwaukee Night and Day at The Suburban show.jpg

Lonely Wolf International
Film Festival 2022 
Interview

The distillation of ten years of looking at one square block in the very middle of an American city. A film made from stills that challenges them to move

 

His Dick, it’s great to get to talk with you, how have you been keeping after everything that’s been happening?

 

Fury, fear, and determination — all mixed together, I would say

 

How have you managed to stay positive and busy?

 

Busy is easy. I just get to work every day.

 

I do quite a lot of stuff for the democrats as well. (I have a website called Wisdems Memeteam and also a YouTube channel (Milwaukee Democratic Action and I’m working with a very cool group called Power to the Polls, turning out the vote in Wisconsin.   

 

But I insist on doing my own work as well.

 

Congratulations on being at Lonely Wolf with your film Milwaukee Night and Day, what has it meant to you to get this type of recognition for your film?

 

Thanks!  I’m thrilled to reach so many people.

 

How important are festivals like Lonely Wolf in championing and supporting indie filmmakers?

 

I think they’re crucial. Where else can you find a large, self-selected audience?

 

Can you tell me how Milwaukee Night and Day came about, what was the inspiration behind this unique film?

 

We’d moved downtown. (I mean right downtown.) To an 8th floor loft in what had been an old furniture store. I could see the skyline and the intersection. Two bus stops and a bar. The neighbourhood was beautiful and rundown.  I was in heaven. Then there was Gigi, who had to be walked around the block day and night and in every weather. I saw a lot on those walks. There were the tidal patterns of the city, all that is left on the ground. There were the  indecipherable markings made by city workers, there were the surrealist assemblages left by an anonymous artist that I would come upon — in the night or early morning at the corner of Wisconsin and 2nd, and then there were the traces of the homeless, who spent their nights sleeping rough in the doorways  on the Avenue.

 

I photographed it all. As I did so, I made a couple of rules. Everything had to be shot either inside or within a square block of our building. I’d never done anything like this before. A City Story, if you will. Before this project, I’d spent my time imaging people making various kinds of ethnic music music  and involved in a longterm project of documentary portraiture. Unlike my other projects there are no people  seen up close in my film. 

 

For Milwaukee Night and Day, I took as my model the work of the painter Breughel, who looked at people and their doings from afar.

730 Wisconsin Ave installation Credit Deborah Brehmer Brehmer.jpg

How did you go about creating the films unique relationship between sound and image?

 

I worked with Yinan Wang on this aspect of Milwaukee Night and Day. Yinan is a former student of mine at UW-MIlwaukee. I’d worked with him on his wonderful film,Yen Ching, which he’d started in my Senior Film class and I had the highest regard for his abilities, so I asked him if he’d do the sound and also the edit. We recorded the streets for months, at different times and seasons. When he wasn’t around, I’d see something — say the crowd in line for as show at the Riverside next door or a demonstration going by,  then grab iPhone out and record it.  (I also did some performance for the audio. Those footsteps you hear every once in a while  are made by me. Finally, I asked another friend of mine, the anthropologist Steven Feld, who is also a jazz musician, for a couple of pieces of music that I might use. He knew my pictures —I’d been sending him versions of the edit — and he’d spent time in the neighbourhood, so it felt like a perfect match.  These were the materials that Yinan wove into the film.   

After 10 years when did you know that now was the right time to make Milwaukee Night and Day and did you have any apprehensions about sharing such a long, personal journey-in-pictures?

This film does explore feelings — like the panic I sometimes felt when I was in the alleys  at night or when I was in the presence of something truly abject. I mean, you have to look at it, but for how long?  Still, compared with my family work, the feelings explored seem much less naked to me.

 

As for when the sense of fullness came, there was a point where I knew I had enough — more than enough — to work with.  Ripeness is all, says the Bard. You just know. Then I had to figure out how to look at it. The project actually started in my the building, with two pictures I’d tape up by the mailboxes. 730 — I called it that because this was our building’s address — then migrated outside, to an empty storefront around the corner.

 

The move to make the show more public was the result of my realization that, if I ever wanted people to see all the pictures I was making, I would have to convert them into some sort of film. When I realized that I had enough to make a forty minute loop, one picture slowly dissolving into another, I was ready to go.  I set up a rear projection, bought a two-seater bench and chained it to a post opposite the storefront window, and projected the images randomly, accompanied by live piano music recorded at the bar across the street. I’d turn 730 on when I took Gigi out around dusk, then turn the sound off later that night  when we’d take our last walk, and let the picture run until morning. I then ran what I called the world’s smallest micro-cinema nightly for fifteen months.  The homeless guys loved it. It was just so boring to be out there all the time, they told me.

 

Then I had the opportunity to show it at The Suburban Gallery. I wanted to do something different this time around, not an installation so much as a story. I’d often felt while shooting it, there was a kind of emotional scenario in what I was doing. I knew a story was there. Working with Yinan, I figured out how to tell it.   

  

What is the message you wanted to convey with this film and do you think you have achieved this?

 

This is a film that doesn’t have a single message. Sometimes the city pictured here is simply and utterly beautiful. At other times, it is the stage where the conflicts of our times play out. Throughout the film, I play the part of the protagonist, of the observer, of someone who keeps a kind of visual/sonic diary, forever sifting through his notes to  tell the stories of his time and place.

 

As a self-taught photographer where did your interest in photography come from and on a technical side what type of equipment do you like to use?

 

I grew up in the theatre, then started one myself. I used to complain that people couldn’t take good pictures of my productions. Then I got a camera and realized it wasn’t the photographers but rather the productions… At the same time, I was making photograph portraits of the woman I was living with, and one of them just knocked my socks off and made me understand that I should give up the theatre, take up photography, and study real life if I wanted to get anywhere.

 

I started with a Nikon FM2, then went on to Leicas, used mainly Canons for the film, and am now shooting with a SONY A7iii

Dick Blau self portrait in alley.jpg

"Throughout the film, I play the part of the protagonist, of the observer, of someone who keeps a kind of visual/sonic diary, forever sifting through his notes to  tell the stories of his time and place."

What was your first impressions of Milwaukee once you moved there?

 

It was beautiful but dull. There never seemed to be anyone on the street.

 

Did you imagine Milwaukee would provide you with so much creative inspiration and what did the reaction you got for The 730 Project mean to you?

 

The creative inspiration comes not from the city so much as the university. I had the privilege of co-founding the Film Department there and chaired  it for 20 years. I learned a lot from my colleagues, who were all experimentalists. In fact, the formal question I am taking a whack at in Milwaukee Night and Day has everything to do with trying to figure out my own relation to still and moving images.    

 

Do you recall the first images you started to take once you moved to Milwaukee?

 

They all had to do with the family, not with Milwaukee at all. Unless you count the vegetation in the backyard.

 

If you could describe Milwaukee in one sentence what would it be?

 

I can’t.

 

How has your approach to you photography changed since you started out?

 

I’ve developed an interest in abstraction.

 

Are there any other themes your looking forward to exploring with future works?

 

I am working on a big piece right now. It’s called The Same River Twice. It involves hundreds of pictures of the river in back of the building. I started it during the pandemic. Gigi had died, and I didn’t want to walk the block any more, so I started looking seriously at the river.

 

What tips or advice would you offer an emerging photographer?

 

Work every day.

 

And finally, what would you like audiences to take away from Milwaukee Night and Day?

 

An eyeful…and an earful!