In the piece, New York Times photographer Fred Conrad gets the job of going to shoot Joel Meyerowitz, a renowned photographic artist whose 50-year career as a photographer is being commemorated by a two-volume book and an exhibition. The story is presented on the Times’ site as a video, shot in this case by Elaisha Stokes, a freelance videographer for the Times, who really deserves the credit for how nicely this turned out.
I was immediately reminded of a time many years back when I was given a similar intimidating assignment. One of my very favorite photographic artists, Aaron Siskin, was having a big exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art and was in town to give a lecture and attend to the hanging of the show. Siskind was an original member of the Abstract Expressionist movement in New York back in the 1950s—maybe the only recognized photographer member—and his compositions had been inspirations to me for a long time. The thought of shooting him was a bit scary—I didn’t want to embarrass myself and I wanted my portrait to be reflective of his work as well as my own sensibilities.
What I came up with was simple,and ultimately, I think, successful. Sauly’s Hardware store in an old part of the New Orleans French Quarter had exterior walls that were a beautiful pastiche of many layered attempts at replastering and repainting, all mixed and blended into an Old World look of disrepair that I thought would appeal to Siskind: just the kind of surface that he himself would like to photograph. One of the places I took him during our two-hour walkabout was to Saulny’s, and that’s where I ended up making this photograph:
After the article was published in our Sunday magazine at the paper, I got a call from Siskind’s assistant: would I be willing to trade prints? Wow! Of course I would! I got to work immediately, setting up my archival trays to make a proper fiber-based print. I signed and matted it and mailed it off, wondering what I would get in return.
Well, then nothing happened. I wondered if it had all been a waste of time. Did he forget about our deal, or not like the print? I slowly forgot about the whole thing as time and other work took over….
Then one day a shipping envelope arrived. Inside were two beautiful black and white prints and a note from Siskind, thanking me for my print and saying how much he had enjoyed our portrait session together. The prints, signed on the back au verso, were from his Mount Vesuvius series, and now hang proudly in my home.
So shooting another artist can be tricky and tough, but ultimately rewarding, if you find a way to make a portrait make sense. Really it’s no different from any other portrait you attempt: you want the work to not only be a statement of your vision, but also revealing of the individual you are shooting.
Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Or subscribe to our Facebook page or our Twitter feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog