Critical Reception to My Neighbor Portraits

One of the reasons I was looking forward to pursuing an MFA was the sense that there would be great communal moments where I would receive critical feedback and constructive criticism, and try my hand at saying what my work is about, or seeing if it is understandable.

Yesterday was one such occasion, and also a rare moment for me of revealing work that is very much still in its chrysalis stage. I normally try to get work to a really finished point before I show it, as one of my colleagues said yesterday, as he marked the border between my “resolved” and “unresolved” works.

This was possible because I am making it my daily practice to allow myself to be vulnerable and take creative risks, particularly in my picture making.

Searching for a Subject

A few of the images I showed were ones I made a few weeks ago on Lenox Avenue, where I live, about 80 blocks up Sixth Avenue from ICP [over Central Park]. The viewers saw people of color, which was interesting, and pretty far from the point. I suppose that they thought that, as a white European guy, I went trekking up to Harlem to photograph the exotic other. In fact, I live in Harlem, and have for some years, where I am the exotic other, and don’t mind in the least, as a bi-cultural European, I am used to being regarded in this way. Both Swiss people and Italians think I am playing for the other team.

The portraits, for me, are the outgrowth of a decade-long experiment  that is more about establishing a formal visual way to represent states of consciousness and invisible interior traits, so the fact that they were being identified with skin color, while not surprising, given some of the remarks I heard that afternoon photographing on the street, was really not the interesting part.

My neighbor, Ammar

As you see in these photos made of me during that portrait session, I left my house with my equipment and kitchen chair, and, having arranged with my neighbors at the deli next door, to use their outlet for my strobe, set up shop right in front of Ambassade Buffet the Senegalese restaurant I live above . After photographing my friends in the MGI Deli, I stopped strangers passing by, and asked if they would sit for a portrait for an art project. I promised to send them some via e-mail as a thank you. Many said no, some said yes, and often the whole absurd ad hoc photo studio drew an audience, which was a very scary thing made palatable by how great it was to have new subjects to work with, having photographed myself to a point of boredom and hounded all of the friends I have left.

Keisha and her beau Jan-Michael both sat for me and drew an audience

In a strange way, screwing up the courage to go out on the street with what I have always done very privately was a suitable and fortuitous preparation for the critique that was the first audience for the resulting pictures. Did I feel invincible? No, but calmer about being so vulnerable and unembarrassed.


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