Saturday, November 3, 2012

Here I am, talk in hand.
The text of my talk about Strangers at Gallery Kayafas on October 25, 2012. 

First, I want to thank Arlette Kayafas not only for doing this show, but for encouraging me to exhibit this particular work. Thanks to the Corporation of Yaddo for providing the perfect place do this work. And thanks to Margaret, my wife, for all her help. I’m very pleased to be showing with Caleb, and I hope our talks —and the shows themselves—will help you see if and where our turf overlaps.

I’m going to talk about I got some of the ideas, the artists who influenced me, how this work relates to my past work, and  what it all might mean. In fact, I have no idea. But I’m going to give you my best guess.

With that said, this series got started as an experiment in essentialism. It was just curiosity. I wanted to see how much I could change a face before I lost the essence of the person. I wondered if the face would come untethered. But, since I’m a photographer and photographers pledge allegiance to the facts, I felt like I had to stop just short of that. I didn’t want the work to slip entirely into the monstrous or grotesque. I wanted a to keep a feeling of realism so the uncanny would be more believable.

So the pictures look like portraits--they’re vertical, the face predominates, they have certain feeling or mood. But I don’t mean to suggest a personality or a psychology or a story. I want to present faces composed of nothing but themselves, that become something more, or perhaps, less.  I think of these pictures as non-portraits. That’s why the show is called Strangers.

Some facts. The people who posed for these pictures are artists, musicians, writers, and family members. Many thanks to them, since, whatever other virtues these photographs have, they are basically unflattering. Luckily, they don’t look much like the people who posed for them. As they say in the front of books, any likeness to real people, living or dead, is unintentional. Still, the people ARE recognizable some of the time.

How do I do them? My method is to take dozens of extreme close up pictures of a face, then blend them together to make a new version—employing both the methods of Humpty Dumpty and those of Mr. Potato Head. I hold the camera just inches from the sitter’s face, recording the parts of the face in isolation. Everything—distance, angle, lighting—is in flux as I move around. The fragments can’t possibly match when I put them back together. Distortions of focus, scale, anatomy, time, and perspective creep in. At the same time, there is a lot of detail because the picture is made up of many exposures.

It’s amazing that a quarter of an inch here, a quarter of an inch there can change a face so much. At first glance, the faces seem normal enough, then it dawns on you that something is off. I want it to be just wrong enough. This dawning surprise is important to me, one of the sensations I value most in art.

Somehow, these pictures have an almost messy or painterly feeling that doesn’t look explicitly handmade, although, in a sense, they are. I blend each layer on the computer, by hand, so to speak. It’s a little like fitting the contents of your house into a moving van. You try it this way and that until it fits. Nothing is automated.
Photography is too quick for me. Somehow, my temperament is such that I like to make things. So I’ll often do projects that take a lot of work. In the past I’ve made objects to be photographed in the studio and done collage-like photographs. I’ve used the real world as collage material in a series that was kind of like a still version of a time-lapse film. In
this new series, I want to pack in a lot of extra information about a single face, while keeping the look of a pure photograph.

So Strangers grew partly out of my own work and interests, but it’s also worth mentioning a couple of biographical details. I guess I’m more comfortable in the studio, so both Selected People (the time-lapse work) and Strangers are part of a conscious effort to get out of the house more. I like to do different things in every series, and the new work looks very different from my older work. I wanted to do something “powerful” and maybe kind of ugly, since I usually go in the other direction.

So enough about me. Let’s talk about how a few artists have influenced me, in particular, regarding the face.

For example, David Hockney and his photocollages. He had the idea that the more photos go into a finished piece, the more the result resembles the experience of looking, which is a continuous, active process, richer, he argues, than a single still photograph.

Other influences include the big staring portraits of Thomas Ruff, Reinekie Dykstra, Chuck Close, Martin Scholler, and the famous deadpan intensity. I think my work makes fun of them a bit even though they are a real influence. What I like is that it’s a game of chicken. They stare at you, you stare at them.

A special influence is Tim Hawkinson’s wall sculpture Emote--something that is so much on my wavelength that I really wish I did it myself. He made a contraption in which cutouts of facial features are moved by hydraulic pumps mounted on the surface of a large photo. When a switch is thrown, the arms move the features of the face, and you see a see a bunch of random emotions. And in my work, too, sometimes you see opposing emotions on a single face.

In fact, my work is all about this kind of contradiction.

The faces are enormous, the detail tiny. Big and small flip back and forth, like the forest and the trees. A particular photograph seems to capture a single moment, but many moments and feelings are actually represented. One eye flashes in anger, the other is downcast in a single face. They are portraits without specific persons, but they are not generic. These are images estranged from themselves, photographs that are not OF what they depict.

This teetering feeling is what I’m after.

I suppose another word for all this is irony, being two things at once: Hiding and revealing, accommodating contradictions.

You might think I’m alienated from people, or that I believe people are alienated from themselves, or that I’m alienated from myself, or that appearances deceive or that I yearn to connect with people. You might think photographs are unreliable, or that skin tells the truth. You might think I’m a warm person or a cool one. You might think these Humpty Dumpty pictures are about the broken or the fixed. You might think I’ve learned something about the nature of the photographic portrait. You might think I’ve removed the person from the persona. You might think I’ve shocked you out of your bourgeoisie complacency. I might even be problematizing representation!


You might be right.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Show Is Open

Here I am at my show at Gallery Kayafas. That's one of the pictures behind me, of course, proof that the show is really happening. I've been writing my gallery talk, which I'll give this Thursday (October 25, 2012) at about seven. Caleb Cole will be speaking, too. It should be an interesting juxtaposition, since I'll be talking a little bit about identity and more about non-identity and my non-portraits.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Detail: IR, 2010, 57 x 42 inches.
The show opens tomorrow. I'm giving a talk on Thursday October 25 and I'll be at the First Friday reception on November 2.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

" a masterful broom, his new book had scattered the dust long settled on the subject of identity, and swept it into exciting new piles."

— Edward St. Aubyn
Some Hope

I've been reading The Patrick Melrose novels. They may sound fancy and English but they are also gritty and bleak, heartbreaking and funny. In addition to naffs, tossers, and toffs (I'm never sure what these words mean), the narrator talks about consciousness quite a bit, and this line jumped out at me they way things do when you feel they resemble something about you. This is just what my work is doing!

Sunday, October 14, 2012


This is a picture that will be in my show Strangers (Gallery Kayafas, Boston, October 19 to November 24, 2012). I did most of the works in 2010, but this is one from the end of the summer. It combines incompatible emotions on one face--an angry eye and a sad one, in addition to other distortions of scale, perspective, and emotion. I think of them as non-portraits, since I think these pictures are just barely connected to their sitters. The people are almost unrecognizable. But I've come to think that they are connected even though they are greatly changed. I think this line of argument is called essentialism in philosophy
This is self-portrait. I did it to go along with the rest of my Strangers series, which is one way of looking at the face. But I've been experimenting with looking at faces in other unusual ways, and mine is the most available. I thought I might show this with the Strangers, but decided not to. I want to work on it and related projects some more. I may call my next show "Me Time," by the way. I have several other takes on the subject, but I like this animated version best. Meanwhile, later on today I'm taking the prints for Strangers down to Gallery Kayafas in Boston's South End so they can install it during the week. The show opens October 19, 2012.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

New Selected People Pictures

I've been feeling like doing more pictures in my Selected People series. Once the weather turned nice, I had some new ideas or the urge to finish some older ideas I never got around to. I've tried a few times in the past to do a picture of birds, but only this one lives up to what I imagined.


Here I am, explaining how big something is to my wife (r) and someone else at the opening of  PRC in NYC on May 19, 2012 in Brooklyn. (Picture courtesy the PRC Boston.)
Here I am again, at the same opening, happy to be with my wife and Glenn Ruga, who curated the show.  (Picture courtesy PRC, Boston.)

Monday, May 14, 2012

Click to go the event web site.

Frog Pond, Spring
I'm going to be showing work at the New York Photo Festival. Please drop by and say hello if you're in New York (see below). Some of the work is very new, including Frog Pond, Spring (above). I'm pretty excited about it. I'll be there for three days, going to shows and museums as much as possible, as well as events at the festival.

111 Front Street, Suite 210
A showcase of the vibrant photography community in New England, featuring work from the Boston-based Photographic Resource Center.
Featured Artists: Noah David Bau, Pelle Cass, Christopher Chadbourne, Dominic Chavez, Vivien Goldman, Nancy Grace Horton, Toni Pepe, Esther Pullman, William Scully, Tom Young
Reception, Saturday, May 19th, 2:30-4:30pm

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cindy Sherman Clowned

Photograph of Cindy Sherman by Martin Schoeller. I retouched it to resemble her clown pictures.

Here's the original by Martin Schoeller.

Here's another Cindy Sherman picture redone by me. Note how much my version retains of Schoeller's original.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Cindy Sherman Refurbished

Untitled #465. 2008 Photo: © 2012 Cindy Sherman/courtesy 
the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

There was a time I was sick of Cindy Sherman, but no more. I love her new work—pictures of socialites of a certain age, women who very well might be New York City East-siders and art collectors. They play off our moment’s deep engagement with appearance, and they make fun of everything in sight. Nearly sophomoric parodies on the one hand—against all odds—they are deeply moving on the other. These women desperately want to look the way they used to—younger, firmer, better dressed, prettier, more fashionable. (They probably look as wealthy as ever.) But they can’t pull it off. They look ghastly. Though Sherman plays these characters, she says they are not about her, that they are not self-portraits. Yet these women are relatively close to her in class, status, and wealth. Sherman’s formal dexterity with makeup, wigs, prostheses, sets and backgrounds, props—all the artifice of Hollywood and Madison Avenue—is stunning and, just by itself, a feat. She is so crafty that she almost parodies parody itself. Sherman both mocks Hollywood slickness, by going broad and obvious, much like theatrical makeup, and she also mocks the society lady's desperately clueless efforts to slap on the spackle and turn back time. And the new work, with what seems to be occasionally increased empathy for its subjects, somehow makes all her other work look great, too. It's a miracle that I’ve been puzzling over. I have no answer.

Untitled #465. 2008 Photo: © 2012 Cindy Sherman/courtesy 
the artist and Metro Pictures, New York. 
Retouching courtesy, if that's the word for it, me.

As an exercise trying to understand, I retouched my favorite Sherman picture. I simply removed everything that was “wrong” or “unsightly” and "improved" the overall tone--what a fashion retoucher might do.  Here’s an itemized list. Top to bottom, I

• raised the hairline and removed the widow’s peak
• added light to the eyes and removed the red from the eye rims
• smoothed the wrinkles around the cheek and rest of face and removed makeup, esp. blush
• desharpened the nose
• fixed the lip line (was bigger than mouth) and removed the cracks in the lips
• softened the chin line and took out the neck wrinkles
• fixed the anatomy of front shoulder and softened the shoulder blades. Also removed the sunburn from the shoulders
• softened the general tone of the image to look a more harmonious, somber, and old master-y and corrected the perspective of the background

This way, it's easy to compare.

Friday, February 10, 2012

 I've always included a little forced perspective in my work. That's the common photo hobbyist's trick of mixing near and far and letting the camera flatten out the image. The result is usually a joke about scale, as above. But photographers and artists have used it in other ways, as below.

John Pfahl

Esther Stocker

George Rousse

Pelle Cass (me!)

And here's a recent image of mine that I did at a recent residency. One of the notable features of the examples above, excepting the snapshot of the helicopter, is the tidiness and precision of the images. I wanted to do something shaggier, I guess. Something where you can see how it's done and see some mistakes, but the trick still works. I've also inverted a couple of other things: the margins contain my alterations, and I've used 3-D materials to make them. Click images to enlarge.

Monday, February 6, 2012