His love affair with photography began early and his love of Memphis was almost immediate.
Murray Riss keeps a dour expression, but with twinkling eyes beneath hooded lids. He favors the writer Calvin Trillin, or the comedian Jonathan Katz, and could be a character actor from central casting, perhaps for a Woody Allen film based in his home borough of Brooklyn. He’s soft-spoken with a dry sense of humor, and is a pleasant lunch companion after a walking tour along South Main, where he has a studio in what was, a century ago, the Frank James Hotel.
Those eyes of his take in everything; it’s the burden, or blessing, of the photographer. He points to the vintage sign hanging over his door to advertise a hotel that isn’t any longer. He tells the story of hand-painting that sign back when he first bought the space in 1986. “Some prostitutes came over from Earnestine & Hazel’s to ask if I was opening the old hotel back up. They wanted to know how much I’d charge for the half-hour.”
The story is told flatly, but there’s that twinkle, and there’s that smile.
The son of Polish immigrants who came to America after World War II, Riss fell into photography when he came across a camera while delivering for a pharmacy at the age of 11. “I just liked photographing everything,” he says. “Then I taught myself how to process and print; everything about it was just magical. I didn’t care what I photographed. When I was 11 years old I just was having a great time.”
He attended the City College of New York and bounced around from major to major, finally landing on photography in his senior year. But he had no one to look up to, no mentors, no goal to attain. He began looking to the big photography magazines of the time — LIFE and National Geographic — and eventually he noticed who it was taking all those wonderful pictures.
“I began to admire photographers, and the one I admired a lot was a man named Harry Callahan.” An influential twentieth-century photographer who taught at the Institute of Design in Chicago and later the Rhode Island School of Design — where Riss would come under his tutelage — Callahan’s influence can be seen in Riss’ images of the human form set against and within nature.
Riss comes from a practical family. His father had been a lumber broker in Europe and spoke eight languages. In America, he owned a grocery store on Flatbush Avenue. Riss’ mother was upset with his career choice, asking him, “Why do you want to waste your brains being an artist? You can be a doctor.” (His brother would become a doctor.) Taking a page from his parents’ sensible handbook, he decided that perhaps he would teach. He considered graduate school, and that’s when he looked up Callahan to find he was only four hours away in Rhode Island. Riss made a call.
“He said bring up a portfolio and let’s see it,” Riss says of Callahan. “So I gathered up all my photographs and I mounted them and matted them and I had a pile that was this tall, and I walked into his office. He turns over the first one, the second one, and he says, ‘Okay, you’re in.’ I said what about the rest and he said, ‘You’re in!’”
Upon graduation, he was contacted by Ted Rust, then president of the Memphis College of Art, who went down a list of names of Rhode Island graduate students to find possible new teachers. “I was teaching a class as part of my fellowship and he [Rust] said, ‘Do you want to come teach in Memphis?’ and I burst out laughing because I was a radical of the Sixties. He said, ‘Well, don’t laugh, why don’t you just come and check us out.’” The offer was to start a photography department for the college, to design the program and the curriculum from the ground up. Riss accepted and boarded a plane for Memphis on April 4, 1968.
“I was leaving when he [Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] was shot and they wouldn’t let the plane go,” he says. “I had a record with the FBI because I’d demonstrated so often in college, and so they came on the plane and said, ‘What are you here for?’ and I said, basically, ‘What business is it of yours?’ ... They took me off the plane into this little room with all these guys with short hair and black coats, and then I was a little more serious than I had been. I told them why I was there and they called the college, so they let me go.”
King had been the commencement speaker at Riss’ college graduation at City College of New York in 1963. The back door of his studio now overlooks the Lorraine Motel, home of the National Civil Rights Museum.
He tells this story over lunch downtown; the confirmed vegetarian munches on a salad. We’re sitting in the “Elvis booth” at The Arcade, the oldest restaurant in Memphis. Elvis — The Arcade — Murray Riss. It is a hat trick of Memphis photographic icons.
With its classes of composition and black-and-white processing, Riss’ photography program became popular at Memphis College of Art. “Very quickly, people from the community wanted to take courses,” he recalls. With limited darkroom space, they tried to bribe their way into class. “So there was something percolating in this city about photography, right from the very beginning.”
He had become intrigued by Memphis, this Yankee from Brooklyn. He saw something varied and “skewy” in its landscape and would spend time in the countryside, this young man from the city. In this landscape, he saw “something a little bit like Faulkner’s writing, something that’s real but it’s not quite right.”
Memphis at the time was home to a number of commercial photographers and wedding photographers. Art photography was limited to a local amateur camera club with a fervent interest in birds. The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art would allow the club to show their work and keep the best photographs from the exhibit.
“That was their idea of art photography,” Riss says. “When I first came, they asked me to be one of the judges and they had several other judges and everybody was voting for birds. I was voting for photographs that had a little bit of something going on, and they got frustrated with me and the guy who was head of it, a psychiatrist, came over to me and, in a real loud voice, said, ‘You know, I treat people like you.’”
A smile spreads across Riss’ lined face and his eyes narrow and glimmer. “You see, this was such an interesting place I had to stay. I thought I would stay for two years.”
(Riss’ wife, Karen, is a psychotherapist. His son, Adya, and daughter, Shanna, children from his first marriage, also work in the psychiatric field. His daughter married a photographer from Brooklyn, giving Riss no end of pleasure as regards the psychological implications.)
The artwork he’s produced in his adopted hometown is anything but utilitarian. Black-and-white photos from the Sixties and Seventies show a playful inclination. It’s work that might be made easier today with Photoshop and other digital tools not available then. He married nature with photographs from fashion magazines and he layered negatives upon negatives. A man’s face disappears in darkness for a portrait alongside Peabody Avenue. A pregnant woman, nude, stands in light from a window with the ghostly image of her daughter almost unseen behind sheer curtains.
Riss’ photographs can be found in collections held by the Art Institute of Chicago, the George Eastman House, Bibliotheque Nationale (Paris, France), the New Orleans Museum of Art, and many more. A beautiful portfolio of gelatin silver prints commissioned by the Center for Photographic Studies (Louisville, Kentucky) is in the Library of Congress. He’s been involved with group shows at the Museum of Modern Art (New York), Santa Fe Center for Photography, Harvard University, and the Photographers Gallery (London), among others.
At a show that included his work at MoMA, the ultimate gallery for a contemporary artist, Riss says his pragmatist father asked, “Can you make a living at that?” He has made a living. But more than that, Riss ushered in photography as art in Memphis, and his eye as a curator is just as focused as for his photography. He’s organized shows such as “Southern Eye, Southern Mind” in 1981, pulling together many organizations and institutions around town to showcase local and regional artists. His 1971 Photography Invitational at MCA introduced the city to national works, and became infamous for a time when a professor’s son was kidnapped and held hostage until the controversial exhibition was taken down. The kidnapper had issues with a series of nude photographs in the show, a first for Memphis. The show was eventually removed only days before it was scheduled to come down anyway.
While at MCA, Riss says, “we came out of it and just started photographing, like there was something internal that drove them [the students] to take pictures of people and things that they knew. I think the best artists come like that, when they come from something that churns inside them.” He taught at the college for 20 years, leaving when he felt the philosophy behind the instruction wasn’t his own.
“These days everything is discussed and analyzed, and so a lot of the art these days is just cerebral, and I guess that’s another way of making art. To me, that was one of the reasons I quit teaching, because it was real antithetical of how I thought art should be generated. That was making these kids self-conscious about their art and then they would make self-conscious art ... it was bedlam.”
His love affair with photography began early and his love of Memphis was almost immediate. It would be a different matter when Riss was asked to change from film to digital. He left the teaching profession just as it began to switch over to the newer technology, continuing to work as a commercial photographer with the darkroom and the contact sheets and the tones he’d grown up with and come to know.
“I went kicking and screaming because there was just this beauty that comes out of film that’s just tonality, and I was reluctant to give it up,” he says. “I’d invested all this money in good cameras and then one day someone called me and asked me to give them an estimate on a job and they said, ‘You are going to shoot it digitally, right?’ and I said no and they said, ‘Well, thanks very much but no thanks.’ That was it.”
He worked for years in marketing and for advertising agencies. He shot freelance for this magazine; his work can be found in dozens of different issues of Memphis, including a 1994 portrait of cotton magnate Julien Hohenberg. A loft in his studio was built, so art directors could sit and watch him working at a safe — and removed — distance.
These days, his work is full of vibrant color. For the 2013 Founders’ Day Exhibition at MCA, Riss, in a joint show with sculptor and friend Dolph Smith, showed a body of work that was artwork on the body. He covered his models with body paint and photographed them, blurring the line between photography and painting. The catalog for the exhibition, titled “Once More With Feeling,” reads: “The photographs test the limits of what a photograph is. When does a photograph that parallels the workings and imagery of a painting stop being a photograph? And if it takes longer than a few moments to realize that it isn’t a painting, does that speak of its success as a painting or failure as a photograph?”
The pictures are alive and the color, in sharp contrast to his earliest photographs, draws the viewer in to realize the human body as a canvas. Riss has once again become the master of his medium, this time digitally, as an artist.
“Well, the digital revolution has totally, totally changed that [commercial] landscape,” he says. “An awful lot of photography is available for next to nothing, so a lot of the advertising agencies subscribe to these programs where they pay a hundred dollars or a couple hundred dollars a month, and they have access to all kinds of pictures constantly. So that’s made it very hard.”
Still, he doesn’t begrudge the technology or the ease that it facilitates. The exact opposite is in fact the case, for this old college radical. “That’s the wonderful thing about photography today; it’s so democratic.”
I take out my phone to snap an Instagram of the photographer across the Formica table inside The Arcade. Murray Riss smiles. “You’re smack dab in the middle of an incredible revolution.”