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Thomas Roma: 'The Waters of Our Time'

Tonight, from 7 to 9 PM at the powerHouse Arena in Brooklyn, Thomas Roma and his son Giancarlo will talk to Susan Kismaric, curator in the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art, about their new book, <i>The Waters of Our Time</i>.

Tonight, from 7 to 9 PM at the powerHouse Arena in Brooklyn, photographer Thomas Roma and his son Giancarlo will talk to Susan Kismaric, curator in the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art, about their new book, The Waters of Our Time, published by powerHouse books. If you would like to attend the event, reserve a ticket here.

Thomas Roma is one of the most charismatic people I have ever met. I say this not to account for his many achievements, which include founding and continuing to run Columbia University's MFA photography program, having solo shows at both the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photography, and inventing the very camera he uses to take pictures. Rather, I aim to point out the abundance of an increasingly rare quality: Roma knows how to talk to people. It makes sense—this is a photographer whose pictures hinge on the most human moments that add up to a life. He talks about his photographs in a generous and unusual way, considering them mementos or talismans to help other people get by.

This spirit is reflected in the scale of this new book, The Waters of Our Time, which fits in the pocket of his suit jacket. As we enter a noisy bar in Chelsea, he gifts me the intimately sized volume. Almost immediately I notice something unusual: The book's text, written by Giancarlo Roma, his 22-year-old son, starts halfway down the cover. It is given equal billing with the photographs. The book is a facsimile of Langston Hughes and Roy DeCarava's 1955 book, The Sweet Flypaper of Life, in every respect save the content, Roma tells me. "This book is an exact replica in size, number of pages, and number of pictures. Even the paper we used on the cover is the exact same stock. It's an ancient stock that the printing press found for me in Italy." As we sit down, the song playing in the bar changes, and he raises a finger toward the ceiling attentively.

Thomas Roma: Etta James, "At Last."

I play a song before every class I teach. In the first class, it's always Dinah Washington singing "Look to the Rainbow." It's a different song each week, depending on what's going on in the news or what we've been through in class, but the last song is always Richie Havens singing a song called "Follow." This song is very important to me. I don't think I could teach without it. The last class, I pull this out to reveal what I've been talking about all semester. The Book's title, The Waters of Our Time, comes from the words of that song.

I use music to demystify art. Especially now, with cell phones and iPods, we all have a playlist. And that playlist is your life story in some way. Music is art, and when we need it, it's there for us. When you have a breakup or fall in love. When you're confused, when someone's been mean to you. There are different songs for those times. And I think the same thing works for photography; there are photographs that come to my mind when I'm going through different things. That's what I'm trying to do when I photograph. I'm trying to provide people with photographs that they can hang on to if they need them at some point.

VICE: What drew you to The Sweet Flypaper of Life?
What struck me when I first saw the book, before I even touched it, is that the text starts on the cover. And the picture on the cover is not repeated inside. It's not text and photographs, or photographs and text. They exist as coequals.

The text in that book is a story about an old woman, who is recalling a bit of her life in a melancholy way. She is confronted by the Angel of Death, and she tricks the angel by saying she can't die because she has too much work to do; she has to look over her grandchildren. It's kind of a sad story about obligations. This new book is about the opposite. It's about being swept up. There are things that happen to us for their own reasons. And they never make any sense. But we have to give in to what life is.

That's a beautiful idea.
A toast to our first meet [glasses clink].

It seems like all of your work is very personal but made to apply to a much wider audience.
The one thing I really like hearing about my work is, "You know, I really hated your last book, but I loved the one before." Only sociopaths want everyone to like them. When we attempt to make art, we're subjecting ourselves to criticism. That's the role of the hero: The hero doesn't play it safe. Going through life and trying to convince people is a mistake. You have to just put something out there, and if people don't like it, you say, "Don't like that one? I'll sing a different song."

This new book, I brought my son along. The picture on the cover is from the first roll of film I ever shot, with a camera that I made in 1972. Do you know I design and manufacture the cameras I use? It's called Siciliano Camera Works. I've been using the same camera since 1991. I think I made the perfect camera. It was so perfect, I named it after my son. And I did it in such a fit! I never made blueprints, and I lost the sketches, and I was afraid to take it apart to measure everything. I'm calculating my years on Earth, and I figure I really only need one more camera. But I'm making two, in case I get mugged.

My son was a great baseball player as a child, the best shortstop in New York City. I designed a machine to make his baseball bats, and I made all his bats. So I not only made the bats; I made the machine to make the bats. That's what a maniac I am.

Are there pictures of your son in the book?
Yes, but he only plays a character. As you go through the book, he gets younger and younger. My wife, Anna, also appears as a character in the book, and she gets older and older. So there's a criss-crossing narrative, and the book ends as a kind of a tragedy that's a secret. I took the inspiration of it from [MoMA Director of Photography Emeritus] John Szarkowski's book, Mr. Bristol's Barn. There's a secret in that book. Almost no one knows it.

I'd like to know.
Well, I can't tell you today. Then we'd never see each other again.

I wanted to make a book in which there would not be enough information for anybody to come to a logical conclusion. There's a problem I have with young people as I get older: They put a lot of stock in logic, and I'm not interested in the slightest. Not internal logic, not external, not what your father or mother told you, not what your great professors told you. They are liars too. Logic is always dependent on the information that you have. People think that logic is related to quality in some way. It's not.

It seems like the way you're combining images with text, and images with other images, is more poetic than logical or linear.
The idea of linear is a curious one. I like to tell a story of two people who walked down a block in Brooklyn, from avenue to avenue. I'm waiting at the end of the block. And the first person, I stop her, and I say (imagine a beautiful spring day), "Excuse me, I noticed you walking down the street. What did you think?" And the first person says, "Oh, it's very boring; don't bother going down this block." And I ask why, and she says, "I saw a few English sparrows, and common pigeons, and that was it." Well, this person is an ornithologist, and the block was boring. The second person walks down the block, and I stop her, and she says the block was amazing. "You've got to go and look," she says. "In the middle of the block there's the exterior of a 17th-century Dutch farm house. And if you look across the street, you can see where there is a barn. And if you look up and down the street, you can see the houses the farmer built for his first- and second-born." This person is an architect who designs building for people to live in. And there are such blocks in Brooklyn; you can go there. This person was exhilarated by the walk. So when we say linear, I want to know, who's line are we talking about? What eyes do you have in your head to see?

How does teaching fit into your practice as an artist?
I probably care more about teaching photography than photographing at this point.

Really?
I'm never going to stop photographing, but I know I'm going to stop teaching. So I'm very focused on doing a good job teaching now. Because I can photograph until I keel over, but it would be irresponsible for me to teach until I keel over. I do care enormously about it.

Speaking of mortality, I listened to an interview with you and your son on NPR, about the last book you made with your son, Show & Tell. I believe you said something about how he was going to be able to look at it when you're gone.
If I made a list of my qualities, one of them would be "inexperienced father." I didn't have a father. My father actually gave me up for adoption rather than going to jail for beating me up. He did it in front of me; I was standing next to the judge in the Supreme Court. It's a melodramatic story. I'm aware of that.

So I didn't know what it would be like to be a father. In fact when my wife, Anna, announced to me, "We have to start trying to have a child," it was an issue, because she ended up with seven pregnancies, and we have only one living child. My son is number 5. I immediately went into psychoanalysis. On the first day, I said, "I'm here because I read that abused children often become abusive parents. And I imagine it's because they're acting unconsciously, and I don't want to do that." And he said, "Having a child gives you the chance to experience a happy childhood." So I shook his hand and said, "That's enough; I'll be back next week."

It's vulgar to think you should be the perfect father or the perfect son. That's how people drive themselves crazy. My son was certainly exposed to different sides of me. I hit people, for instance. Not my son. But, you know, in ager, I have been known to punch somebody in the face. He's seen it. He's been there. I'm a conflicted person, and there are things he's gonna have to sort out. I've been a jerk; I've been angry. I don't know that I've tried my best; maybe there's more I have to give. But I named myself when I was 30 years old Thomas Roma. It was my fourth name change. So I am Thomas Roma, and he's been exposed to that person, if that makes any sense.

The life he's seen of mine is not an obstacle. He doesn't have to feel like he has to live up to anything I've done, because I've stumbled and fallen and crawled in the mud, then stood up proudly and walked into the dance with mud all over me, saying, "Take me as I am." I'm not trying to convince anyone of anything. I'm trying to experience life. I've only learned my family's background in retrospect, so I'm not a slave to my biology, or who my grandparents were. I'm not at all tribal, except to say, I'm a little more comfortable around photographers than other people. I don't think they're better than anyone; I just think I'm a little more comfortable. I want to be able to experience everything I can, with the proviso that I'm not leaving Brooklyn.

The Waters of Our Time is published by powerHouse Books. It was named one of Time magazine's best photobooks of spring/summer 2014, and it's one of the most beautifully made books of photography I have ever seen. It retails for $10.09 on Amazon. Buy a copy, and keep it in your pocket.

Matthew Leifheit is photo editor of VICE. Follow him on Twitter.