Archive for December, 2001

Sean Kernan

December 22, 2001

My first good photograph had something in it that I had completely failed to see when I was taking it. Not a ghost or anything like that, just a certain harmony of elements and a mood, an emotion. It made the picture better than anything I thought I could take, and taking it showed me there was more to me than I knew.

So what did I do next? I tried to do it all over again, of course. That’s how it begins.

As I continued photographing, I did a little of each of the great themes-landscapes, street photography, and, of course, some portraits. I liked doing the portraits because it gave me an excuse to walk up to interesting-looking strangers and ask if I could gaze at them for a half hour or so. Normally, they would have said no, but because I was a photographer-or said I was-they would agree. Can you believe it?

Over the years, I kept making portraits, sometimes as part of a project and sometimes when I saw someone I was drawn to in some way. The pictures were just acts of seeing, which was quite enough.

But as time passed, I nearly stopped making portraits altogether. To this day, I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was because I had no context in which to place them. Or perhaps something came between me and the world. I don’t know. Then, a while back, I acted on an impulse and did a few experimental portraits with the view camera. I wanted to see what would happen if I set aside a tendency to control the frame very closely and just let things run. Would it make for good work? Would it be my work? (The answer to both questions was yes, as it turned out in the end.)

So when a type of project formed in my mind after seeing the portraits of Hermenegildo Bustos during a visit to a museum in Guanajuato, Mexico, I was open to it. I had seen Bustos’s work years before in the Italian magazine FMR and had been struck by it-blown away, really. Bustos, a portrait painter in a small Mexican town at the end of the 19th century, had an extraordinary ability to bring his subjects to life. Considered a local artisan/painter in his lifetime, he was recognized post-humously as a kind of self-arisen genius of Mexican art.

Bustos filled a common role of the time, and one that would later fall to town photographers everywhere-that of portraying the townspeople (for a commission). But he also managed what so few such artisans or artists do. He saw deeply into whom-ever sat for him and painted his own simple, deep, direct response to their humanity. His subjects seem to live on the canvas where he painted them into place over a hundred years ago. What makes him great is that his portraits not only look as though they could speak, but as though they could think. That is Bustos’s art.

So there I was, visiting the region where he had lived and seeing his work on canvas, not on the page. I was sensitized by my visit to the museum, as one so often is, and as I sat in the plaza afterward, having a coffee and watching people, it seemed to me that the descendants of Bustos’s subjects were all still there, walking around. It got me thinking about portraits, and about people and the world, and the question arose in my slightly caffeinated mind, I wonder if I could….

So with the help of a friend, I found someone to work with me in Mexico. I went back a few months later and set up a small studio-just a hotel room-in Guanajuato, and I pulled surprised people in off the street to make their pictures.

And the pictures-well, they surprised me. They came out better than anything I had in mind, which was how photography began for me, and how it always works when it works. And-peace to the previsualization crowd-that’s the way I think it is for all of us, whether we know it or not.

People in Mexico were so gracious and the work came out so interestingly that I made two subsequent trips to other towns and cities, including the town where Bustos himself had lived and worked. Then I went to Rome and did a slightly different version, shooting in the street rather than in a studio. And as I did this work, for some reason I kept thinking, This would be great to do in Cuba. So in the spring of 2000, I contrived to hitch a ride to Havana with the Maine Photographic Workshops group and set up my little studio in an old part of the city.

As a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum once said to me, “A photograph is all subject matter, isn’t it?” If I hadn’t been trying to fob off a few of my prints on him, I would have explained that a photograph, a good one, is not a representation of its subject but a sign of the change that doing the work produces in the photographer. I don’t think he would have agreed, but it is true, even of the portrait, which in particular seems so involved with subject matter (i.e., the actual person). Anyway, this is what I wanted to do when I set out to make these portraits. I wanted to see whatever the work could show me.

When I began the project, I was curious to see what would happen if I gave up some control of things and then made myself do it again and again. Would the work be coherent? Interesting? I renounced some of the usual features of the portrait in order to see what might emerge. To begin with, I set aside place, the world where the subjects stood, entirely. The light was beautiful in Mexico, but I used artificial light, a single source for the face and another for the wall behind. I also removed the subjects’ bodies, either by moving so close that only a part of the face showed (in Mexico and Cuba) or by hanging a yard of black velvet behind them and wrapping another around their necks (in Rome). So all the clues that might derive from clothing and stance were now gone.

Finally, I pretty much removed myself. Well, that’s not entirely true. I was there, I had chosen these particular subjects, I had set up and framed the shots, at least up to the point where I took my head out from under my black cloth. But I couldn’t really interact with them because of language barriers, and I didn’t even try my usual self-deprecating shrugs and nervous bumbling. I just ducked behind a large, daunting view camera that was set inches away from the subject’s face. Behind it, I tended to disappear.

In a way, I left people alone with themselves. It was a bit like putting the subjects in an empty room with a two-way mirror and watching to see what they would do, how they’d behave in the space. Would they talk to themselves, make a face? Of course, they knew they were being watched and recorded, but the watcher was obscured, so in a sense they were there alone with a lens, presenting themselves to themselves, as though they were looking into a mirror/eye with a mix of apprehension and faith.

Years ago I felt that I could only do a portrait that was true if I established some kind of bond between subject and photographer by talking, by gazing into their eyes, by making myself available to my subjects. I even held one nervous subject’s hand the whole time I shot. Very 70s.

But in these new photos my approach was a kind of Taoist wu-wei, or “nondoing.” The term is one that Westerners often take to mean “not acting at all.” In fact, it means something closer to allowing action to occur without trying to seize and direct it, while staying as aware as possible. It is as though every event and energy has its own internal trajectory, its way, which included an observer-in this case, me. Of course, I had to know what was happening, so I used Polaroid Type 55 film, which gave me a proofed negative on the spot.

I was also investigating the idea of setting up a theme and then doing small variations on it, in such a way that the very repetitiveness of one element, the face, heightens the response and makes revelations vivid. In this sense, some of the work relates to the music of Phillip Glass.

The other effect I explored was that of scale. I show the photographs as big as I can afford to make them, 36 x 48-inch Iris prints, so that each face is two or three times larger than life-size. I do this in order to interrupt the habitual response to a portrait. I wanted viewers to hang in a place of awareness for as long as possible without defining their response, in the hope that they’d have a more subtle and open-ended experience than they might normally have. Of course, in all this it was still me clicking, choosing this moment and not that one. But the click was part of what was occurring, not a cutting off.

One day in Mexico, one of my subjects moved from the time I took my head out from under the cloth and the time I shot the picture, and when I peeled the film there was only half a face. I was annoyed for a moment, then I thought, What if I just do the other half of the face?

Once again, it was more interesting than what I’d had in mind. So now I was able to work with the element of time. I’d always been jealous of painters because they could layer impressions over time, while a photographer had to make do with 1/60th of a second. I started matching up halves of faces, then went on to deliberately mismatch them. I was charmed by the implication that each person changed faces and that I could show that.

All I really wanted to do in all of this was to see if I could startle myself by catching the impression of a life in a picture I had made of someone. I wanted to surprise myself the way Bustos had surprised me. For now, I’m really not trying to add anything weightier to that impulse.

For me, the wonderful thing about the work is that making these portraits has woken me up again and brought me back to the state of excitement that I experienced when I first began photography. This excitement has a way of slipping away as habit takes over, and I’m glad to take any opportunity to entice it back into my life.

Now that I’ve taken it this far, there is the question of how the work gets out into the world. For one thing, I had a show that traveled to museums and galleries in several cities in Mexico this year (in Bustos’s home state of Guanajuato, which made me both a little nervous and pleased), and I’ve done a small book called Ritratti Romani with a designer friend. Eventually, I’d love to have a comprehensive show of all the work here in the United States.

Obviously, it’s quite a portable project and an open-ended one. And I count on the momentum that a project generates to carry it on. To where? Well, I dream of photographing coal miners in Siberia, Andean Indians, Germans, and perhaps New York theater audiences. I’ve done some preliminary work with the mentally handicapped, which I found to be very challenging. I’d love to go further with that.

John Paul Caponigro once asked me, “What is revealed in these portraits?” I certainly hadn’t thought of that question when doing the work. I guess I just wanted to be with these people and take the moment seriously and see what might come of that, what we might make together. Len Jenshel reminded me recently that Garry Winogrand had photographed because he wanted to see what things looked like in photographs. I think that I began by wanting to see what these people would look like in pictures taken this way, and to see if that might extend my seeing. Beyond that, there was no planned outcome, none of what I recently heard a composer call “the fallacy of intention.”

So the work was direct and experiential, and the pictures are almost a by-product, the shavings of a process done in a state that was both abandoned and disciplined. The work arose from some place that I couldn’t get to any other way. Just like in the beginning. It’s the awareness I was after, that aliveness. The rest is just a box of pictures.

More of Sean Kernan’s work can be viewed at