Notes on Humans
I was a history student when I first took up photography. In my early pictures. I documented old-time musicians in Nashville, Tennessee, and people who worked at thoroughbred racetracks in Lexington, Kentucky. I shot at state fairs in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Lincoln, Nebraska, and high school football games close to my hometown of Boston, in Natick, Massachusetts. Also, near home I made portraits of race car drivers at obscure rural tracks and club boxers going nowhere. And at night I went to taverns in so many places, from Bakersfield, California, to Hollywood, Florida, photographing as I went. Sometime I worked on assignment and sometimes on vacation. But almost always I photographed for myself.
By recording these disparate pieces of our culture, I thought I was somehow saving them for posterity. In my mind I was a historian with a camera, or perhaps a folklorist. There is a great tradition of this in photography which started even before Matthew Brady and others made their haunting pictures of the American Civil War. When I was beginning as a photographer, I looked carefully at the work of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Brassai, August Sander, Weegee, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, and so many other amazing documentary photographers. Looking back at their work we see an invaluable record of our past and I wanted to be part of this tradition.
As far as I can tell, the pictures in Humans have nothing to do with all of that. Ten years ago, for no discernible reason, I began photographing land and sea animals and produced books called Creatures, Canine, and Aquatics. As the work progressed, I moved closer and closer so I could see my subjects more intimately. This way of working felt very different than photographing people, places, and events as a documentary photographer; it was far more peaceful, relaxing, and introspective. And it required a lot more patience. Photographing the human body was simply a natural extension of this direction.
In all these photographs my goal is very basic. I want to make fundamentally good pictures-well-crafted photographs that make you stop and look and maybe reflect. Beyond that, I have no grand design, no hidden or overt agenda. You can choose to see these pictures in any way you want, as graphic images, as metaphors, or even as documents. It really doesn't matter to me.
I suppose this is really a very old-fashioned idea. Today's artists are meant to be conceptually more astute, heavily armed with complex ideas and carefully worked out justifications and philosophies. But I don't believe good artists have to be intellectuals or great thinkers. They don't even have to be especially smart-except, of course, about making their pictures or their artwork.
As a longtime teacher, I always hope that what I say and do has some positive influence on my students, even if that influence isn't always obvious. I was blessed as a student to have many legendary photographers as my teachers: Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, and Minor White. To me, they were all artists whose work was far more interesting than anything they had to say about it. However, as a young documentary photographer, my teachers' photographs didn't interest me much. They were too reflective, too formal, too personal-and not enough of this world. But what my teachers did teach me was the most important lesson of all: to respect what I did and to take it seriously. Looking back I now realize that they also taught me a little about picture-making.
In Humans I look at a timeless subject, the human body, and try to make photographs that are familiar and intimate but still a little different. For this I have borrowed what I could not only from my teachers, but also from Many Ray, Paul Outerbridge, Karl Blossfeldt (spelling?), Irving Penn , and so many other great photographers who saw nothing wrong with form having a function. I used simple, traditional techniques, photographing indoors with available light-either natural or existing room light. I used a 35mm SLR camera and very high-speed film, usually ISO 3200. I hired models and photographed every part of them bit by bit from head to toe. Then I asked them to turn over and I did it again. Sometimes I was two or three feet away from my subjects but mostly I was much closer-some inches away or even less. To get that close, I used macro lenses and often added supplementary close-up filters to compose even more tightly.
In the darkroom, I pushed processed (overdeveloped) the film which gave the negatives a high degree of graininess and extended contrast. Prints were made traditionally, mostly on matte-surface, fiber-based, silver-gelatin paper, which was then sepia toned for color. Occasionally I made platinum prints. This laborious process, dating from the 19th century, involves handcoating the photographic emulsion so that platinum salts rather than silver forms the image.
I chose traditional techniques in part to give a timeless subject a timeless look and also because they act to abstract the subject a bit. Seeing in monochrome possibly allows us to look at parts of the human body in a different light. Finally, I chose traditional materials because they have been proven over time to be long lasting and stable-something any historian or documentary photographer might appreciate.