Interview With Peter Tan

Tuesday, September 28th 2010

I met with Peter in his office at the small liberal arts college where he is a professor of philosophy. He is young, tall and highly fascinating. My first surprise: his middle name is Tagore, after the Nobel Prize-winning poet from India: Sir Rabindranath Tagore. Dr. Tan was born in Central Java (Surabaya) Indonesia, and has a BS from the University of Arizona, (geology), an MA from Boston College (Philosophy), and a PhD from Fordham University, specializing in Process metaphysics. He is married to an architecht, and they have an 11 year old son. Pertaining to his photography, he says, “I got into [it] as an undergrad because it was a way to be outside and travel.  I still love to travel and never tire of natural landscapes, many of which are sublime.” His pictures attest to that. The following is an all too-brief interview. If you are interested in inviting Dr. Tan to speak at your symposia, classes or group, I am sure he could entertain you with his wide knowledge of many subjects ranging from geophysics to (in his words) “massive interrelationalities between things.” Yes. Indeed. Reminds me of a favorite Tagore quote: “Between the shores of me and thee there is the loud ocean, my own surging self, which I long to cross.”

JJ: Edward Steichen said, “Photography is a major force explaining man to man.”  You are a philosopher and college professor and an artist with many talents, what’s your take on photography?

PT: It is playing with time, catching an action, blending action, making several minutes into an instant, or making an instant out of several hours. It’s elemental, about temporality.

JJ: When did you get your first camera?

PT: I remember I started playing with my father’s old Canon Rangefinder when I was about seven. My first camera was a Polaroid someone gave me, but my first serious camera was when I was fourteen, a black Nikon FM. It was stolen ten years ago when somebody broke into my home.

JJ: You are an inveterate traveler. When you go on a trip with your family, what part does your camera play in your consciousness?

PT:  There is a general  rule. Camera gear is heavy and 95% of any trip is hauling the equipment, but if I don’t bring it, I always miss a perfect picture. Now I always travel in anticipation that something will happen. There have been too many times when I’ve said “If only…” Now I travel with a backpack and tripod and a Canon 5D.

JJ: I’ve observed when students sign up for photography classes, thinking it will be a snap; they are always surprised at the difficulty, the technicality involved. How did you learn to be a photographer?

PT: I observed a lot. I read a lot. Not just books by famous photographers like Ansel Adams, but theoretical work on the subject, theories of light. It’s all about light. Also, now   that the Internet has made it easy to follow technological advances, we can learn about certain lenses, certain filters, and all the possibilities.

JJ: Once a psychiatrist asked artists whether they painted mainly landscapes or portraits. I guess it was to label introverts or extroverts, or some such test. I note this folio is predominately landscapes, but I have seen some beautiful candid portraits of your family, especially a lovely moment with your mother. Do you have a preference?

PT:  My wife says I should take more pictures of people. That would involve a big camera, more noticeable intentions, and in some cultures it is not kosher to take images. It is an interesting observation, translated into pure photography, most of my images are wide-angle instead of telescopic. I see better “wide.”  I guess a psychiatrist would say I don’t isolate details. Whether that has to do with a messy desk, I have no idea. My philosophical training is about what images you see, or are able to see.

JJ: From our conversations in the past, I know you have a wide-reaching, encyclopedic interest that far exceeds the boundaries of philosophy.  For example, you are well-read and even up to date on contemporary fiction apart from scholarship. And you are also interested in cooking.

PT: I love to cook for people and see their reactions and if they don’t like my cuisine, I ask them about it. I want to know why.

JJ: I know you are a very private person and would be reluctant to pontificate, but now that I have you “on the spot” how would you classify your vision as an artist?

PT: It will be a generic answer. What gets me is the aesthetic sensibility, a throwback to the Romantic who found that aesthetic sublime…For example, take lighting, vapor, a chunk of rocks, simple elements that can form something that is truly outstanding, something that can take your breath away.

JJ: That’s how I felt when I looked at your portfolio here. I gasped as I looked at each new photograph. The pictures evoked a physical reaction. Was that your intention?

PT:  No. No. I don’t ever think that anyone else will see these things I photograph. I am not used to showing myself or sharing my aesthetic at this point. It’s like an author who while making art must allow the public into her privacy, or a painter who cannot help but reveal his or her inner life, I haven’t come to terms with that aspect of my work, yet.

JJ: I am proud that you allowed me to “show” your breathtaking photographs in my gallery. As for your inner life, as shown in your work, it commands my deepest respect. Thank you.