A Pocketful of Contemporary Artists Portraits by Sebastian Piras.
Judd Tully is a widely published journalist and art critic and is a longstanding member of the
international Association of Art Critics.
A Pocketful of Contemporary Artists Portraits by Sebastian Piras.Judd Tully is a widely published journalist and art critic and is a longstanding member of the international Association of Art Critics.
Judd: What initially inspired you to take photographic portraits of artists? When did that begin and do you recall your first subject?
Sebastian: I started taking photographs of artists friends while I was still living in Italy back in high school. I never thought of it as an inspiration nor as project until I moved to NYC from London in the mid 80s. I photographed Robert Mapplethorpe in his studio and he invited me to an opening reception of his photos. There I met Warhol and I asked him if I could photograph him. I took pictures of him in several occasions and he suggested that I would perhaps take more photos of artists and possibly show them in interview magazine. I didn’t take many as I was busy working on other projects and then Warhol died and well you know interview went into this messy transition and I didn’t really pursue the project any more. A few years later while I was spending more time in East Hampton I started taking photographs of artists again since I had a lot of neighbours who were artists (Ross Bleckner, Eric Fischl, and John Chamberlain etc., etc) and here I am still taking portraits of artists to this day.
Judd: Once you’re in the artist’s studio and have his or her undivided attention, what is it you’re trying to capture or convey?
Sebastian: I never really had a plan per se when going to the artists studio, I don’t really do anything gimmicky nor conceptual when taking these portraits. I have always preferred to shoot as soon as I could after I got to the studio. I like that energy that sparks from the first impact of meeting somebody, be that uncomfortable, nervous or at ease it’s great energy and that was my main goal. Creating a visual record of my encountering these subjects. I have been told that I captured the “essence” of the person and stuff like that and I never understood the meaning of that but I welcomed the positive response I have had to the image, however my goal was to create a visual “product” of my meeting with these artists. The quicker the session the better.
Judd: Historically speaking, what photographers do you admire or think about who’ve taken photographs of artists? Would it be Man Ray or Brassai or David Douglas Duncan?
Sebastian: Brassais studio portraits were certainly beautiful, but Man Ray’s portraits in general were just brilliant. Arnold Newman of course did great artists portraits. Helmut Newton, although better known for his nudes actually did strikingly beautiful portraits. Phillip Hallsman’s collaboration with Dali. However I am particularly fond of John Deacon, the English photographer who used to hangout with Francis Bacon. He produced a small body of work (and lot of it was lost) but created very potent if not disturbing portraits of his circle of artists friends.
Judd: There’s quite a history of that, no?
Sebastian: No doubt. The extensive body of work of artists portraits taken by Hans Namuth. Robert Mapplethorpe also did his own “variation” on that subject, he was such a perfectionist.
Judd: Do you feel part of that so-called tradition?
Sebastian: To quote Groucho Marx ; “I wouldn’t wanna be part of a club that has someone like me as a member!” (I had to squeeze that in there somehow). I don’t think I could make that statement. I surely belong to a group of photographers who somehow are attracted to the process of photographing artists. If anything it would be interesting to know why that happens. Artists are certainly a seductively fascinating project for photographers, yet the motivation to immortalize them still puzzles me.
Judd: Since you started your project in New York City, probably at a time
when the art world was a very different kind of place, (certainly pre-Chelsea) what changes have you noticed from your side of the camera?
Sebastian: When I came to NYC the “scene” was mainly focused in the east village and Soho, (but also the upper east side) so it was rather localized and concentrated. It was very vibrant and lively, I mean in the mid- 80s NY was really wild.
I think the main “industries” of the city(wall street, fashion, music and art) were at an optimal point of convergence I think Warhol was a pivotal figure then and was great at bringing those groups together. Clubs were also very involved in the process, I remember the Palladium, the club on 14th street had a great show of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs, and Area was a great intertwining of art and entertainment. But the main element that I think might differentiate then from now is real estate. there’s no way for young artists to be able to get large spaces where they can work and perhaps live, so a lot of the art in NYC now is maybe produced elsewhere. Some 15 or 20 years ago there were still many affordable areas in NY so artists could actually work in the communities where the art was actually being shown and the community itself was rather interesting and vibrant. I think today the art scene is just as vibrant but somewhat more diluted as a scene. there’s all these satellites rotating around Chelsea, there’s galleries in Dumbo, Williamsburg, the Lower east side and many other places but, perhaps for the exception of Williamsburg and Dumbo (and maybe not for long) the artists communities are more spread out and the art world is an industry just like any other in NYC in a lot of ways. The product comes for the most part form out of town!
Judd: Are artists less available now for sessions in their studios or more guarded?
Sebastian: In general I think so. There’s definitely more weariness in the part of several artists. I think that’s partly created by the more enhanced business environment in the arts. There’s maybe a fear of being” overexposed”
Judd: In other words, is it harder now to capture your prey?
Sebastian: I have had instances were I was actually told from certain artists that they didn’t want to be photographed for privacy purposes but then I see them in Vogue on articles about their homes etc etc (JUDD DO YOU THINK I AM BITCHING TOO MUCH HERE? ) At the same time I am not that concerned to have someone say no, I understand being photographed requires a certain effort and I accept someone refusing to pose.
Judd: Does there have to be a chemistry between the subject and photographer or isn’t there time for that?
Sebastian: Well there definitely has to be chemistry. However I accept bad chemistry as much as I accept good chemistry. The problem is when you have a neutral zone (as it seldom happens), the result is rather plain.
Judd: Is there an artist out there that you’ve always wanted to shoot but for whatever reason, haven’t been able to photograph?
Sebastian: I could think of a few: Willem de Kooning for one, I had been to his studio in springs (East Hampton) on 2 different occasions but it was complicated to actually photograph him due to legal reasons. But for sure i really wanted to photograph Francis Bacon. When I lived in London I had a girlfriend who was friend with both Bacon and also Freud, however unfortunately somehow I never made it to their studios. I don’t think I was ready for this project back then. But then there’s great portraits of Bacon by several photographers, john Deacon’s my favourite and Peter Beard also did some very nice ones.
Judd: Lastly, has your technique or approach changed very much since you started taking pictures of artists?
Sebastian: Certainly it has. Firstly I have not been shooting with my medium format camera as much. I have been shooting more and more with a 35mm digital camera. The result is rather different and so is the interaction. I used to only bring 3 rolls of film with me (36 exposures) and somewhat forced myself to get the picture in a short time and with few exposures. With digital the whole scenario changes and there’s also room for manipulation in the computer. I have applied the Sievert variations on some images and was very happy with the result. Just as the art “scene” changes I am open to change formats and approach. Problem is that results are more ‘chancey”.