It’s not often that you encounter a photographer whose work is driven by long-term projects aimed at being published as books. Norman Mauskopf belongs to that rare breed. Over almost 40 years as a documentary and commercial photographer, teacher and mentor, he has immersed himself four times in pursuing a singular subject with his Leica, shooting images that would be curated, shaped and published as a riveting book: Rodeo (1985), Dark Horses (1988), A Time Not Here: The Mississippi Delta (1997) and Descendants (2010).
The time Mauskopf spent to research, travel and shoot each of these projects ranged from two and a half to ten years, reflecting his passion and commitment to documenting subjects that fascinated him and called him to return repeatedly until he had captured their essence. His work has been honored with many awards, including a W. Eugene Smith Fund Fellowship and a Scanlan Family Foundation Grant. In addition to his own books, his photographs have been published in several anthologies as well as numerous magazines around the world.
Mauskopf’s trajectory into photography books is a story that can provide a lesson in career-building for other photographers. Growing up in Washington, D.C. in the 1950s and 1960s, he fondly recalls that his family received LIFE magazine, whose sharply-focused portraits and powerful black-and-white photos of civil wars, urban blight and natural disasters captured his attention. “I loved the way that LIFE’s staff photographers, like W. Eugene Smith, captured their images with unforgettable intensity,” he says.
That experience planted a passion for photography in his mind. However, that passion receded into the background when he entered college at American University and chose a more employable major: economics. After graduation, Mauskopf spent seven years working at The Brookings Institution (a private think tank) and the Federal Reserve Board. There, he met his lifelong partner, Neva, also an economist, who became his muse and encouraged him to pursue photography.
In 1978, Mauskopf moved to Pasadena, California to attend Art Center College of Design. About that time, documentary photography was beginning to lose the aura it had in its heyday. LIFE stopped publishing weekly in 1972 and became a monthly in 1978. To support himself as a photographer, Mauskopf took on freelance gigs, filling his calendar with advertising and magazine work. He shot commercial products, architecture, portraits and whatever else he was asked to shoot. As Mauskopf notes, there was enough work in those decades for ambitious photographers to stay afloat and even make a decent living. From his perspective, he was fortunate to live through the tail end of a golden age for documentary and commercial photographers.
Back then, the top photojournalists were all using Kodak TriX film, the king of black-and-white. (“Actually, I was too poor coming right out of school to shoot color,” he admits.) Mauskopf recalls how he would cover the bathroom windows with towels at night. His “darkroom” allowed him to load stainless steel reels of film on the toilet lid and develop film in the bathtub; then he would dodge and burn prints with his trusty enlarger on an old wooden desk, with a red bulb screwed into the overhead light fixture.
Some of his work was generated through the photo agency Matrix — two people in a little office on 23rd Street in Manhattan. They would get him assignments and syndicate his photos in magazines. Eventually Mauskopf’s work became popular in Europe, where black-and-white documentary photography was revered. With his substantial experience as a working photographer, Mauskopf then began teaching, first at UCLA and then at Art Center.
Yet the lure of being an independent documentary photographer never left his psyche. In Southern California, Mauskopf found himself fascinated by numerous subjects that he had never seen during his youth in Washington, D.C. He was attracted by the wide range of “subcultures” — people whose lifestyles and appearance were completely different from his own. They piqued his curiosity, and he would go off on weekends to search for events and settings that intrigued him — car racing, airplane shows, circuses and the like.
Mauskopf’s first book, Rodeo, began as one of those curiosities. In 1983, he saw a sign that a rodeo was coming to Pasadena. Expecting a rehearsed performance like a circus, he took his camera and discovered a mesmerizing world of dust, drama and action, where real cowboys rode bucking horses and angry bulls, risking their lives. He went to more rodeos, starting to shape a project that he thought might lead somewhere.
More of this article can be read in the Winter 2014 issue