This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

October 1, 2011

By RF Staff

David Carol doesn’t mince words. The native New Yorker tells it straight, and his casual demeanor and razor-sharp wit run in opposition to the “fine art photography” label that is assigned to his work. For the record, Carol hates the designation because it reeks of pretension. Ditto for snooty gallery openings.

Carol’s photography echoes his personality, and is equally uncensored in its observations. His work points out the ironic, the absurd, the misplaced—like the image of a junked mattress blotting the beauty of a desert landscape.

“That image wraps up everything that I do. Here you are in the desert, and what is this dirty mattress doing there?” asks Carol. “Life is serious, and it’s also not serious—there is a contradiction there. I didn’t always know that’s what I was doing [documenting this].”

His unique style has earned him critical success—Carol’s works are in the permanent collections of more than a dozen museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
But Carol didn’t fully embrace his own style until a few years ago, when he had an Oprah-esque “aha” moment during dinner with a friend—Anne Wilkes Tucker, the longtime curator of photography for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and a big name in the museum world.

“I was frustrated that all my pictures looked the same, and she just looked at me and said ‘That’s called having a style, and you know what? It’s a good thing, and you should enjoy that,’ ” recalls Carol. “That was big, because I feel like my issue at the time was that I was fighting the style. But you can’t fight against who you are, and hearing her say that, I realized I needed to be satisfied and go with it.”

The result of Carol’s coming into his own is his new “non-book,” his third effort. His previous books include 40 Miles of Bad Road…, a 10-year retrospective of his personal work from 1993 through 2003. His follow-up book, ALL MY LIES ARE TRUE…, was a collection of photographs taken throughout his 25-year career. Both books were winners in the PDN Photo Annual’s “Best Book of the Year” in 2004 and 2010.

THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS! was done Carol’s own way—even the packaging is out of the box (well, technically, it is a box, a clear Lucite one). It is a collection of 40 photographs and 14 accompanying text plates, unbound in the Lucite container. The first printing is limited to 251 copies. Why 251? Well, why not? (Carol would probably ask you why a tidy number, like 250, would make you feel better.)

THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS! is offered for $50, with a limited edition available for $175. The non-book also includes an essay by Jodi Peckman, creative director of Rolling Stone, whom Carol met early in his career, when he was all over the map—both literally and in his photography. Carol, who attended the prestigious School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York, began his career shooting famous rock stars and models, and traveled to some of the world’s most exotic locales in the name of career.

“It was around 1980, and the punk rock scene was happening, and I thought I wanted to photograph rock stars,” he recalls. He shot the Violent Femmes and The Ramones; he dabbled in sports photography. As the beginning of his third year at SVA rolled around, he could no longer afford school. So the restless Carol set off for Europe, eventually settling in Paris. A relationship with a model led to work at fashion magazines like Harper’s Bazaar; Carols’ portfolio then landed him a position at the photo agency, The Image Bank. He traveled extensively in this job, going to far-flung places like the North Pole.

Around the time he turned 30, Carol had burned out on the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants lifestyle. He came back to New York, because, as he says, it was time for a “straight job.” He moved to a loft in New York’s West Village. Ten years later, he bought a house in Long Island, a stone’s throw from where he spent his childhood. “When I was little I never went anywhere, so in my teens and 20s I wanted to see the world,” says Carol. “And after I’d been to so many end-of-the-world-kind-of places, I ended up owning a house within two miles of where I grew up.”

Carol’s “straight job” is at CBS, where he’s been for 20 years. He is now the director of photography at CBS Outdoor. This day job allows Carol to exercise his creative freedom in his personal photography. He takes the pictures he is compelled to take, and never does it for the money.

“I shot commercial work for a long time, and I made more money than I ever dreamed I would, but I messed myself up because of it,” says Carol. “I couldn’t separate my personal work from my commercial work.”

A trip to Russia in the early 1990s helped Carol sort it out. “I stopped shooting color and went to black and white. That turned everything around,” he remembers.

Carol shoots all film, using Leica M’s and Hasselblad XPan cameras and Kodak TRI-X film. All of his film is developed in Rodinal (a venerable black-and-white developer), which gives his images a grainy look. Carol’s photographs are printed using a point source enlarger—Carol explains that it uses no diffusion and also enhances the grainy look. 

Chuck Kelton has printed all of Carol’s images since 1991. “He’s an amazing printer,” raves Carol. Kelton has worked with many other revered photographers, such as Danny Lyon, Larry Clark and Mary Ellen Mark.

Carol alters very little in his photographs—he doesn’t crop his images (“Cropping is a little like cheating,” he says), and he doesn’t stage his shots. For example, Carol never would have carted that mattress out to the desert.

So how does this photography purist feel about the ever-expanding pack of “professional” photographers that appeared with the digital age? “I used to be concerned that if anyone can take a picture, what will happen to the photo world?” he says. “It’s made a lot of photographers nervous. But at the end of the day, a good technical image isn’t necessarily a good picture. When I judge photo contests, the percentage of striking, original work is still small.”

Carol’s advice for a budding fine art photographer (pardon the label), is to get a real job, and to take pictures for yourself. “If you’re making pictures to please a gallery, then you’re probably not taking pictures for yourself,” says Carol. “Take the pictures, take them for yourself, and if other people like them, and even go as far as buying them—then that’s just icing on the cake.”

Though Carol describes photography as a solitary act, he is clearly thrilled when his work makes a connection with someone. When I press him on the inspiration for the title, THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS! he asks what it means to me. I describe the image in my head of children, following along behind a mother, messing things up as they go—the idea that life isn’t tidy. “Yes,” he says, “you get it.”

I will get Carol’s non-book. It will be squirreled away on the top shelf of our living room bookcase, though this will only make it more interesting to my three young children. I imagine they’ll eventually figure out a way to get their peanut butter and jelly-laden fingers on the forbidden treasure, and might even dog-ear a photo or two.

Carol understands. It’s why I can’t have nice things.

To learn more about David Carol’s work, visit his Web site at To purchase THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS! visit www.david

Christy Rippel, a frequent contributor to Rangefinder, has also written for Redbook, All You, the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette, the Los Angeles Times and other publications. Reach her at