a photographer wonders aloud (12/21/12)

I’m at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a Friday night. I’m waiting for Marieka so we can finally see the Matisse exhibition. She’s late again. It’s a good thing I love her. So far I’ve wandered through the modern art galleries, taken a self-portrait in Anish Kapoor’s mirror, and strolled through the “Regarding Warhol” exhibition. It’s a collection of work by Andy Warhol and later artists; either inspired by Warhol or who’s careers were made possible (according to the Met’s curators) due to the path forged by Warhol’s “groundbreaking” work.

self-portrait with a stranger in kapoor's mirror

As I slowly walked through the exhibition, legally eating part of one “sculpture”, I was surprised to hear the security guards harshly telling any person who pointed their camera at a work of art, “No photographs in the galleries.”

“Why?”, I wondered aloud, “Would it matter?” So much of Warhol’s body of work is based on copying other artists’ designs, photographs, and movie stills. So little of his work is completely original. And then there’s Richard Prince (he’s in this show). Talk about pulling the wool over the art world’s eyes! All he does is copy other people’s photographs, blow them up big, and sells what is basically someone else’s art for a fortune. He doesn’t ask for permission. He doesn’t credit the original artist. Who knew being a “great” artist could be so easy? I wish I had the guts! I hope in his last will and testament Prince lets us in on the joke. At the least he should donate his fortune to the families of the artists he stole from. Ha! Can you tell this disturbs me?

I walked out of the Warhol exhibition entertained, mostly by the room with the silver helium balloons, but completely uninspired. After passing through the Warhol gift shop with the $80 coffee mugs, I immediately came face to face with Warhol’s, Ethel Scull 36 Times. When I took art history at Northwestern, the professor spent some time on this silkscreen. I’m not sure why (I guess in 1975 Warhol was at the peak of his career) but I’ll always recognize it immediately. So I decided for a moment I would work as an artist, Regarding Andy Warhol.

ethel scull, 02 times

I studied Ethel Scull, 36 times, deciding how I would incorporate this work into my own portrait style. I photographed Ethel as if she was sitting there in the gallery, looking for interesting light and angles. I couldn’t guide Ethel’s poses or expressions. I was stuck with the 36 poses Andy provided for me. But I could decide on my camera angle and the quality of light on the painting, and with no Met guards in the vicinity, I spent several minutes photographing the work.

I finally came upon two poses, side by side, that felt the most like something I would photograph. The pose on the left would be my image of choice. The pose on the right is one of those in between moments that happen while photographing a model for a long period of time, talking and thinking while shooting. Two images like this often appear as consecutive frames in the camera.

I chose this image because it most captures my feeling about the theft of another persons art. It’s similar to Warhol’s Brillo Boxes and Prince’s copies of Marlboro ads in that the artist adds little or nothing to the original. The Metropolitan Museum seems to understand that something is wrong with photographing art work, especially of living artists. I wonder, aloud, how Warhol would feel.

marieka with joan of arc and rodin sculpture

Marieka finally arrives and I come upon her in the sculpture hall near the European Painting galleries. This is my favorite area in the museum and I see her standing in front of the painting I love the most, Joan of Arc, by Jules Bastien-Lepage. Earlier in the evening while waiting for Marieka I had photographed a panorama of this same gallery and noticed how bright and airy it appeared in my images. When I saw Marieka in front of Joan of Arc, her pose in opposition to Rodin’s, L’Age d’airain (The Bronze Age), I photographed the scene, waiting and hoping the other viewers in the gallery would move into the right positions and balance my image. The painting and Marieka are special to me and I was happy to capture both together in one picture.

Of course Marieka was so late there was no time to see Matisse but both of us love walking so we heading through Central Park, back to the Upper West Side. Marieka is a real explorer of nature and near Cleopatra’s Needle she had to commune with a flock of finches, buried in some bushes nearby. There’s no halfway with Marieka. She hopped over the fence and crawled deep into the bushes so she could be one with the birds.

marieka in the finch bushes

In the meantime, I decided to incorporate another work of art into one of my photographs. The City’s lights on the low clouds was beautiful with the sculpture in silhouette. The reflection of light constantly changed as the clouds sped past. I’ve always enjoyed photographing the light that comes out of darkness and this was one of those moments. As I watched through the camera, waiting for the right cloud formation to appear in the frame, I thought about how this picture, and my photograph of Marieka with Rodin’s sculpture, were so different than my portrait of Ethel Scull.

cleopatra's needle: central park

Cleopatra’s Needle and Rodin’s sculpture are both works of art I incorporated into my own art work. They are important to the design of my photographs but unlike my photograph of Ethel Scull, they are not a direct reproduction of the art. Yes, with the Ethel Scull picture I did shoot in black & white and I manipulated the contrast and tones to change the balance between the two images, but it is still absolutely Warhol’s work as he saw it. Reprinted in a black and white textbook, one could hardly tell my photograph from any other close up reproduction of the same work.

There is a difference, and the best way to explain it is to use the art of dance as a model. Often when I’m hired to shoot a dance performance or dress rehearsal, I stand at the back of the theater and photograph the dance exactly the way the choreographer sees it. I offer no interpretation of the dance. Though being the person I am, I often photograph moments I find inspirational that no other photographer seems to notice. Otherwise I am just a journalist, capturing another person’s art in the best way possible.

ballet next press photo: margo sappington's entwined

When I photograph a dress rehearsal of studio rehearsal for myself the situation is entirely different. I don’t care about the choreography or what kind of pictures the company wants. It’s all about getting great images for myself. I often use very long telephoto lenses so I can capture the emotion on a dancer’s face. In the studio, I’m in the middle of the dance floor with the dancers flying around me. My view is often more like another dancer’s than that of a photographer capturing the event. I might be photographing another person’s art but I am turning into something of my own. There is a difference. I’ve been told by dancers that my presence in the studio inspires them to perform better. That is art.

personal photograph of misty copeland and charles askegard during a ballet next rehearsal

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