Journal

#MakePortraits Monday Spotlight: Jimmy Nelson

 
Jimmy Nelson is not about facts: he’s a romantic, an idealist, an aesthete.
— from the foreword of Before They Pass Away
 

Recently, I was at a birthday party for one of my son's friends & came across a remarkable book of portraits on the families coffee table. It was Jimmy Nelson's Before They Pass Away. As a lover of other cultures, an occassional adventurer to the places that fall well beyond the end of the road and as a maker of portraits, I instantly fell in love with this book.

At some point, I will own this behemoth.

A behemoth, indeed. My first impression of Before They Pass Away was its sheer size. The 16 x 24 inch book is more than 4 inches thick. It is literally a 464 page mountain of portraits. Five hundred striking images of forgotten peoples from the edges of the earth, to be exact.

This project began, however, so the forgotten would be remembered. So the unseen could come into view. And I think that's the idea that leapt off the pages most. It was not the weight of this giant book in my lap that was pressing on me, but the weight of the idea that was there in clear view on every page. In the photographer's own words, that idea was this:

 
I didn’t start this project anticipating that I could stop the world from changing. I purely wanted to create a visual document that reminds us and generations to come of how beautiful the human world once was.
— Jimmy Nelson
 

And that's why portraiture is important. That's why I am as passionate about the subject as I am, because the human world is beautiful. And it is changing right before our eyes. The people you encounter today will someday be reduced to a bullet point in a history or sociology textbook.

How will people, then, know of our world & experiences now?

We must tell them with portraits, so they can see, and stories, so they can understand. This is not a frivolous task. Wherever you are, take time. Listen. Make portraits. That's what Jimmy Nelson has taught me.

In learning more about Jimmy Nelson's work, I came across his TEDxAmsterdam. If you're into things like how this kind of project happens, what it takes to be a portraitist of this caliber, I'd highly recommend investing the 12 minutes to watch. It's an endearingly vulnerable tale of adventure, connection — connection with self & others, through photography — and the lessons the subjects of his photographs taught him along the way.

 
By being vulnerable, by letting go, by being fallible, you connect with people on any level.
— Jimmy Nelson
 

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#MakePortraits: Monday Spotlight: Dorothea Lange

 
What is it in the end? It is a mounted piece of paper with a photographic silver image on it. But in it there is an element which you can’t call other than an act of love. That is the tremendous motivation behind it. And you give it. Not to a person, you give it to the world, to your world…an act of love – that’s the deepest thing behind it….The audience, the recipient of it, gives that back.
— Dorothea Lange
 

When I first undertook this weekly mission to learn about, study and consider the perspectives of the great portrait photographers, I had to keep myself from leading with Dorothea Lange. Her work has deeply influenced my own in countless ways.

Most notably, I referenced her portraits for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression while preparing for shooting Untouchable on my first trip to India.

Though I poured over her work, I didn't know much about the woman behind the photographs.

On a website dedicated to the 2011 book "Daring to Look", author Anne Whiston Spirn notes that Dorothea Lange was a storyteller above, possibly above all else.

 

Lange held up her mirror to American society that we might see who we were, how we came to be, and what we were in the process of becoming. Her words and photographs speak powerfully to the present, for the dynamics she saw and recorded are still shaping American lives and landscapes. 

 

Maybe that's why I'm so drawn to her portraits, because they're connected to a story. Or maybe it's because so much of her work lives at the intersection I feel my work lives in: that place where documentary, portraiture and exploration of self collide.

 
Every image [the photographer] sees, every photograph he takes, becomes in a sense a self-portrait. The portrait is made more meaningful by intimacy - an intimacy shared not only by the photographer with his subject but by the audience.
— Dorothea Lange
 

So, if this notion of portraiture as self portraiture is true (and, confession, this is a belief I've always held), then what does the work of Dorothea Lange reveal about the artist? Along the way to publishing this entry, I've learned a few things that seem to answer this question.

Lange suffered a bout with polio at age 7 that left her crippled. This was something she came to be quite thankful for as she reflected on her life & career:

 

“[It] was the most important thing that happened to me, and formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me,”

 

The early days of her career were spent apprenticing for the likes of Arnold Genthe. Then, she opened a portrait studio in San Francisco around 1919. From that studio she honed her craft as a portraitist, photographing the well-to-do of the city. 

It wasn't until the onset of the Great Depression that Lange came to public consciousness. Her work (above) for the Farm Securities Administration, is regarded as some of the most important by an American photographer in history. She has been the subject of countless books and exhibitions.

During an interview with NPR, author Linda Gordon who wrote the biography Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits noted how the disassociation between the story and the image really upset Lange. Because the images were owned by the Federal Government, the images were freely distributed and as the images became icons of an era, they suffered from anonymity.

 
One of the reasons that she was such a good portrait photographer is that she had an extraordinary power to connect with all sorts of people, to draw them out.
— Linda Gordon
 

Lange, knowing that people stiffened in front of the camera, actually emphasized her disability at times, slowing the whole process down, in an effort to make the subjects of her photos more comfortable.

The style of her work has been characterized as 'detached documentary'. But, these little details seem to betray this notion in profound ways. By diving deeper into her own brokenness, Lange was able to connect with the people of a broken nation & produce works so powerful that they stand as the definitive works of an era. 

If you're interested in learning more about Dorothea Lange, you can watch the Jim Leher News Hour segment featuring Linda Gordon or peruse Lange's work on the Library of Congress website.

 


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#MakePortraits: Monday Spotlight: Steve McCurry

 
The countenance is the portrait of the soul, and the eyes mark its intentions.
— Marcus Tullius Cicero
 

You may not know his name, but you certainly know the work of Steve McCurry. If not the broader body of images by this amazing photographer, you know this image.

 
The Afghan Girl on the cover of National Geographic. Photo by Steve McCurry.

The Afghan Girl on the cover of National Geographic. Photo by Steve McCurry.

 

Given a word to describe McCurry's work, I believe I would choose prolific. He seems at home in almost any possible photographic situation. His documentary work from abroad is stunning. His work in conflict areas, arresting. His dedication to the craft of storytelling, renown.

He's a film student turned photographer who travels the world, invests himself into other cultures in order to tell stories of global significance. I see so much of who I want to be in who he is both personally & professionally. So it made sense, to me, that Steve McCurry be our next stop on this journey toward fluency in craft.

Of his own portrait work, McCurry says, "Most of my portraits are not formal situations; they are found situations." And this, I believe is one of the hallmarks of his genius. I mean, just look at the work:

 
Portraits reveal a desire for human connection; a desire so strong that people who know they will never see me again open themselves to the camera, all in the hope that at the other end someone will be watching, someone who will laugh or suffer with them.
— Steve McCurry
 

In an interview with photographer Oded Wagenstein, McCurry was asked about the importance of story in his images, specifically as it relates to portraits.

 
We connect with one another via eye contact, and there is a real power in that shared moment of attention, in which you can occasionally catch a glimpse of what it must be like to be in another’s shoes. I think this is one of the most powerful things about a photograph... It is a question of the moment to reveal something interesting and profound about the human condition.
— Steve McCurry
 

For me, this is key. If you want to be a brilliant photographer, you have to have a hunger to understand the human condition. As I've said several times before, if we want others to listen to our story, we must first listen to theirs.

And these portraits are really a massive testimony to the way in which McCurry, who is famous for discovering a place & her people by wandering, listens. Guided by instinct, he has learned that the details make us different, but deep down we are profoundly the same.

 
Everybody wants to be respected, to have a sense that you’re trying to understand their culture.
— Steve McCurry
 

In doing the research for this spotlight, I came across this 5 part interview series by Scott Schuman, aka The Sartorialist. It's very, very good & each "episode" is quite short, but Schuman & McCurry touch on a range of questions relating to portraiture, mobile photography & working in foreign cultures.

Here is part one. Chase down the rest here.

In parting, I will leave you one more quote on which to chew. In a world dominated by digitally based shares, I find McCurry's thoughts on the requisite technology of photography to be quite inspiring.

 
It’s your work. It’s like a poem. You put the poem on the table and you read it and no one is going to ask you if you typed it or wrote it out long hand. No one cares how long it took or how many re-drafts you did. How many pictures did you shoot? It doesn’t matter. The proof is the final print.
— Steve McCurry
 

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#MakePortraits: Monday Spotlight: Yousuf Karsh

 
How I wish that mankind would take the sunrise for their slogan and leave the shadows of sunset behind them.
— Helen Keller to Yousuf Karsh
 

I recently stumbled upon the work of Yousuf Karsh, an Armenian born survivor of the genocide against his people & one of the most masterful portraitists of all time. Digging deeper into his work, I found his official website, which pairs his astounding work with anecdotal stories behind the images.

 
 

We live in an age when making a portrait requires very little work — by that I mean our cameras fit in our pockets & the images are re-touched and shared within seconds of taking them — and as I got lost in the black and white images of Karsh's portrait gallery, I couldn't help but think how much we have to learn from the subtle bits of wisdom in archives like this.

#MakePortraits: Monday started as a personal exercise on Instagram, but has grown into a quest to become fluent in the craft. Reading these words from Yousuf, who by every measure is a master, gives me hope that the quest I'm on — and, I hope we are on this quest together — is a worthwhile one:

 
...I believe the past has no claim on greatness, for such arresting personalities are always among us. Nor can we yet judge what lessons remain to be learned from the young. I know only that my quest continues.
 

We are the young — though I am much too quickly escaping that classification — and I believe that many of those lessons we have yet to learn are locked up in archives like this. It is my goal to find them in hopes that that, each week, we can, together, continue to take the sunrise for our slogan.


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Source: http://www.karsh.org