Sunday, May 17, 2020

More Words

It seems that readers enjoyed my words from artists last week so here are some more but this time in a more specific area:  the field of portraiture and pictures of people by photographers.

Artists and particularly photographers come from different points of view when it comes to depicting people.  I cannot resist starting with the words of a painter, John Singer Sargent, who said of portraiture, "What a business this of a portrait painter - you bring him a potato and expect he will paint you a peach."  While a contemporary New Mexico photographer, Tira Howard, who specializes in people writes, “For me, in the act of taking photographs, I often feel a sensation akin to falling in love with my subject. I can feel the hurts, desires, and fears of others as if it was a physical touch. It keeps the medium alive and exciting for me.”

Tira Howard (far right) and family

Robert Mapplethorpe said something similar with less empathy: “The important part for me, more important than the photographs, is the relationship I have with the people I photograph”.  As opposed to contemporary Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra who says, “When you take a photograph of somebody you have a relationship with the picture, not necessarily with them.  Most of the people you don’t ever see again”

Growing up in New York City, one of my favorite photographers was Arthur (Usher) Fellig better known simply as Weegee.  He was a street photographer, known for his photographs of crime scenes.  His work appeared in newspapers and even film stills and is represented in a number of museums. About his work he said, “Now the easiest kind of a job to cover was murder because the stiff would be laying on the ground.  He couldn’t get up and walk away or get temperamental.  He would be good for at least two hours.  At a fire you had to work very fast.”  What he did not say here was he was often in a race with the police to get to the crime scene first!

Another street photographer who we actually knew because we went to the right parties was Bill Cunningham.  He was the fashion photographer who published in the New York Times from 1978 until his death in 2016.  He just loved fashion and he said about his work, “I let the streets talk to me. The streets speak to you - how you find out what's new, what people are wearing, what people aren't wearing”. Like me, Bill rode his bicycle everywhere in New York.  Here he is photographing at the Easter Parade when everyone walks down a closed-off Fifth Avenue in their best finery.

The German photographer, August Sander said, “I never made a person look bad.  They do that themselves.  The portrait is your mirror”.  Now that quote is worth a seminar!  Was it really the sitter or the camera or the eye of the photographer that was at fault?

Sekretärin, 1931

One of the most famous American photographers, Edward Steichen said, “I’d like to know who first got it into his head that dreaminess and mist is art.  Take things as they are: take good photographs and the art will take care of itself.”  However, he did not shy away from the mist when it suited his purposes: one of his most famous photos is of the Flatiron Building in New York which has plenty of mist and so does his Self-Portrait. 

Edward Steichen Self-Portrait,
Art Institute of Chicago

We all come up with reasons for why we do things to explain ourselves to ourselves and as you see come up with many answers to the same question.

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