Sunday, February 1, 2015

Robert Kalman- Portraits Of NYC

Recently, readers at TOP were treated to the work of Robert Kalman; and it's always one of the greatest kicks imaginable to come upon a relative unknown with a body of work that makes one actually stop and look- instead of just scan forever forward as we've become so accustomed in our current digital mindlessness.

Portraiture has always been one of the most difficult of photographic genres, perhaps because it is, in fact, such a collaborative effort. It's significantly easier to go out and make an anonymous landscape or street shot than it is to work together with subject at hand and have two divergent personalities combine to create a "work of art." And popular myths aside, while photographic portraits certainly can't reveal anyone's "soul," they can most definitely lie, deceive and manipulate every bit as much as any photographer or subject- whether intentionally or not; but I digress.

What good portraiture can deliver however, are striking images of individuals that capture our imagination and hold our attention, so much so, that we continue to wonder about the subjects long after we've stopped looking. Kalman's portraits in all their quality (and quantity) do just that, and unlike Avedon, he didn't have to go scouring about In The American West with a van load of assistants to find proper subjects. He does it without an entourage (other than his wife), in his own hometown.

What's that? You don't live in New York? Neither did Peter Feldstein- didn't stop him from shooting The Oxford Project. I make mention of the above, since so many photographers are not exactly privy to exotic locales, and must also work within the confines of (their own) very limited budgets. When all is said and done, it's the resulting images that matter, and fortunately, when it comes to portraiture- interesting subject matter can be had wherever humans can be found.


Unlike back in the day, I no longer need to know every detail of how and why someone shoots the things they do, now I mostly just... look at the work- it's the work that speaks and delivers. Every once in a great while however, I'm still captivated as to why and how someone operates- their motivations, philosophies, strategies, etc; whether it's how someone goes about attempting to photograph history, or how a young photographer goes about making an old tradition current and vital.

Intrigued by the hybrid approach and execution of Mr. Kalman's NYC street portraiture, I asked if he would agree to a brief interview, and he was kind enough to consent:

Photo: © Robert Kalman

SB: I suspect you're a native New Yorker. I'm always curious as to how natives perceive their fellow New Yorkers, how "immigrants" come to view their adopted hometown, and how it all relates to how one approaches and interacts with the denizens of Metropolis.

RK: You're correct; I'm a New Yorker. I was born in Manhattan and grew up in Queens (although most Manhattanites don't consider the outer boroughs as part of "The City").  I don't interact with the "denizens of Metropolis" any differently than people anywhere else in the world. I'm simply always on the look out for faces that move me; faces that have a certain quality of presence. I know that New Yorkers have a collective reputation for being cold, abrupt, wary and in a hurry, but my experience of the New York cultural identity has very little of that. Actually, when we stop a person in the street and ask if we can make their picture with a large format camera, rarely are we turned down. We show the person samples of our work, explain that it is an extended project and that we will send them a print. All that makes it a bit easier for them to agree. I find most people are flattered to be asked, and curious about the process. After all, there might be dozens of people passing by, and I've singled you out. (When I refer to "we" as in "we stop people," and "our" work, my wife, Linda, is my assistant. While I'm the one who selects the people I want to photograph, it's Linda who makes the initial approach. That's because it is much less threatening to have a woman do the asking. Plus, since she's from Kansas, she has this gentle mid-western demeanor that people find disarming.) What we've learned from making hundreds and hundreds of portraits in many different countries is that people everywhere are quite willing to share themselves with us and with the camera, as long as we are respectful and genuinely interested in them.

Photo: © Robert Kalman

SB: I noticed (thankfully) that there aren't a lot of overtly smiling faces in most of your portraits- is that a conscious decision?

RK: When you wake up in the morning and look at your face in the mirror, that is your authentic face. People tend to adopt a cheesy mask in front of the camera. When I make a portrait, what I'm after is the face that you typically present to the world, the face that initially drew me to you. So, yes, it's a conscious decision. What I'm after is an experience, for both the sitter and for myself. I want us to publicly connect for the brief, intimate moment we're drawn together. When I'm working with the person in front of the view camera I usually say to them, "Just look at me." Smiling simply isn't a desired or necessary part of the experience.

Photo: © Robert Kalman

SB: What makes you choose the people you do? Is there a certain look you're after with each individual, or are you cool with whatever they choose to present you? How many sheets do you average per individual; do you pretty much know when you've nailed it?

RK: As I said, I'm searching for presence. And the way I know that it's there is through a visceral response; words aren't sufficient to describe the feeling. I just know it. When I make portraits in the street, as a general rule, I only expose two sheets of film. This is something I learned from studying the portrait work of Joel Meyerowitz, who once wrote, "I need only one or two sheets of film and the patience to see it through." This usually works for me; I'm usually pleased with the results. 

Photo: © Robert Kalman

SB: I'm a big fan of including original text from subjects, it can lend so many additional layers of depth and meaning- one needs not look further than Jim Goldberg's landmark Rich And Poor, or Jeffrey Wolin's Written In Memory/Portraits Of The Holocaust. When did you decide to include the written component, and how do you think it adds to the overall strength of the portraits and presentation?

RK: In December 2010 I returned to a village in Nicaragua to do a series of portraits of people I had photographed twenty years before. In addition to making their photographs, I asked them to write about how their lives had changed or remained the same. Eventually, I incorporated their writing alongside their two portraits in a self-published book. I thought the writing created a poignancy and a deeper dimension to the work. Sometime in 2012 I started shooting 8x10 portraits in the street using white seamless as a background rather than my usual practice of incorporating the environment as part of the image. Although I liked the look of a neutral background, it seemed derivative; too much like Richard Avedon's pictures shot in the West in the 1980's. So I decided to move beyond the Avedon look by having the person write a brief autobiographical statement and then fashioning the words and picture into a diptych. At this point the portraits have evolved back to using the environment as background, but I've retained the practice of having the person write something.

For me, the writing alongside the portrait works on a number of levels. Just as the portrait reveals something unique about the person, so does what they choose to reveal about themselves. Lately, the writing prompt is, "So, what's life like for you right now?" It elicits all sorts of deep and intimate responses. Moreover, each person uses the spatial constraint of the single sheet of paper in an idiosyncratic way; the size of their handwriting on the page reveals something about them, as well. When the writing is juxtaposed next to the image, I think it gives the viewer a greater opportunity to build meaning and inference about the person they're looking at.

Because I work with film, and I have to wait to see the result, I make it a practice to wait to read what the person writes until it's time to scan the writing into the computer. This allows me to be open to feelings of delight, surprise or disappointment when I finally read the subject's work. This is similar to what I may feel when I develop the film and view my own work: astonishment, pleasure or distress. Using their words with the portrait essentially makes us collaborators. And I find this extremely energizing.

Photo: © Robert Kalman

SB: What have you learned since you started this particular series, about: life, people, photography (especially in relation to the strengths and limitations of the medium)?

RK: I've learned that people from very different cultures can behave in very similar ways when standing for a portrait. The large format camera is almost like a third person,and its presence makes the experience for the sitter somewhat of an event. Consider for a moment how many photographs of you have been made in your lifetime. How many photographs of yourself can you look at and also recall the experience with the photographer? It’s my hope that years from now, when a person looks at the photo we made together, they'll remember that experience. I think the view camera helps make that happen. There is a physical limitation in  using the big equipment, however. While I can walk about with a 4x5 on a tripod perched off my shoulder and find subjects as we walk along, I have to plant the 8x10 in one spot and wait for people to come to me. Right now, I'm partial to the 8x10 so I'm living with that limit.

Photo: © Robert Kalman

SB: Finally, and forgive me, but I think it a fair question if only because of the current phenomena and the similarity, if only on the most superficial of levels- that is, how would you differentiate your work from say... something called- HONY? I find them one broad universe apart, but would be interested in how you would interpret and analyze the two. I've tried to be fair and not quite so critical, but Stanton's purely feel good, snapshot imagery often seems to undermine and devalue the very strength of the narrative that he is supposedly trying to emphasize. Or perhaps, that is, in fact, the strategy all along- bite sized pieces of occasionally somber narrative balanced by the accompanying happy shots, so that no one walks away thinking too much or feeling too down.

RK: Someone that I photographed recently posted this comment on her Facebook page: “Before there was Humans of New York, there was Robert Kalman, who saw us walking down 6th Ave in the W. Village back in 2009 when I was pregnant with Mariel. He was doing a photo book of interracial couples- would we pose for him?”

Every so often while we're photographing in the street, people ask if we are "Humans of NY." I find this mildly amusing since what Brandon Stanton is trying to accomplish is very different from my outcome. Clearly Stanton has very successfully tapped into an emotional link for people who want to "humanize" New Yorkers. People who appreciate Stanton's work appear willing to set aside their notion of the New York stereotype and make an empathic connection. I think his work is more about  the person's story than their picture. I've seen You Tube clips of Brandon talking about his work and he acknowledges that he's only been shooting portraits for a few years. What seems to drive him is his passion to meet strangers, get at their story and make that story accessible through the Internet. Shooting the portrait seems merely how he breaks the ice so that he can conduct an interview. It's clearly worked out for him; his pictures and stories have great popular appeal.

For me, however, it's the image of a compelling face that matters most, followed by the relationship and experience I have with the sitter. The words that my subjects offer are confined to a limited space and are presented side by side as a diptych with their image. I think having the words displayed in the person's own handwriting creates a gestalt that is more intimate and unique than the HONY design concept. I guess I just have to wait to have the public figure that out so that I can have my work become as widely shown as Mr. Stanton's.

Photo: © Robert Kalman

SB: Has there been any interest from any institutions on the publication or exhibition of your work; a possible Kickstarter drive or the like?

RK: Some of my work has lately come to the attention of a few galleries through contests that I’ve entered, but I'm possibly the oldest emerging photographer on the planet. One of these days someone will be pleased to discover my work and represent me. Until that happens, I just hope people buy my art before I'm dead.

SB: Robert, thank you for the effort involved in creating this window of insight into what is always the work in progress we call "New York City." And I sincerely hope that discerning eyes considerably higher up the food chain will soon recognize and acknowledge your work for its sheer visual merit, and the diverse cultural and historical relevance it so effectively documents and celebrates.


Eric Rose said...

Fantastic interview. Thanks for the sharing.

Stan B. said...

Fantastic work!

Eric Rose said...

That too.

feetz said...

May you emerge to the gestalt of recognition you deserve RK ! Gallery's ! Agents ! Awake to the faces !