Before today, I had met Steven Balogh on two occasions. The first time was three years ago after his daughter’s (Lily Balogh) Ballet Next performance. I knew right then he was a good man and we should become friends. The second time was a few weeks ago in the streets of Chelsea during an evening of gallery openings. I decided at that moment I had to feature Steven’s work in the next issue of VISION magazine. Besides showing the work of an artist I respected, it would give me the excuse to stop procrastinating and begin our friendship. After a few messages back and forth we decided to meet at Steven’s studio so I could take a look at his work. It would give me the chance to begin figuring out which pieces should be shown in VISION.
I decided to ride my bike to his studio in Astoria. I wanted my entire day to be a new experience. I had never ridden my bike over the 59th Street Bridge. It’s a landmark that’s meshed into my teenage memory. While growing up in Chicago, I remember loving Simon and Garfunkel’s Feeling Groovy, also known as the 59th Bridge Street Song.
I arrived in front of Steven’s studio completely out of breath, having sprinted across the bridge. I paused for a minute to calm down and pull myself together. I’ve been shooting sidewalk closeups of cigarette butts for my Instagram feed and used the cool down time to photograph a cigarette on the ground in front of Steven’s building.
I finally pulled myself together and went up to Steven’s studio. It’s a small apartment converted to an artist’s studio. It was warm and cozy, the walls covered with his work and ephemera. It reminded me of a painter’s version of my apartment; art, books, and tools of the trade everywhere. Soft light came through the windows, Manhattan’s skyline in the distance. I could see the new World Trade Center along with my favorite building of all time, The Empire State Building.
We sat and talked about life for a while, drank Czech beer and finally moved on to talking about my magazine and Steven’s art. Steven has just had a book of his work (painting and sculpture) published in his home country of Hungary. Before this time, I had only seen his work on Facebook. Now I was surrounded by Steven’s art as we paged through the book. There was so much more than I had expected. Art doesn’t always translate well on a computer monitor and that was especially true of his textured work and the sculptures. Everything had so much more depth in real life. As we paged through the book I became unsure of how I would present Steven’s art. In front of me was over 30 years of work, maturing and changing over time. How does one honestly portray that in eight pages of a magazine?
As we talked, the conversation moved away from our work to art in general. Steven’s paintings became more personal to me. I guess the better I understood the man, the easier it was to understand his work.
I began taking pictures in the studio. We moved the furniture to open up space. It began to remind me of the “intimate portrait” shoots in my apartment. At first taking the pictures is simple, shooting in the environment just as it is. But then you see the shapes and light… things need to move to make the images perfect; chairs out of the way, a distracting piece of fabric removed, curtains parted for more light. The motions are the same whether shooting faces or artwork.
I got deeper into Steven’s work. He brought out a few pieces to photograph. I believe maybe unconsciously, he was trying to teach me something. I don’t yet know what that was? It will take more than one visit. We sat again and talked. I finally felt comfortable enough to try a few portraits. Steven had a look he wanted to present and we began there. As always, I didn’t talk much while we shot. Steven was surprised by the amount of pictures I took. Maybe we took 100 pictures? If he only knew what a real portrait shoot was like. 1,000 pictures is a quick shoot. I often take 3,000 images during a session. It takes that long for the model’s brain and mine to completely mesh.
Steven was immediately relaxed. That’s rare for a man. Due to the fashion magazines, women are easily comfortable in front of the camera while men tend to be stiff and overly macho, puffing out their chests and sucking in their bellies. Ten pictures later, they are done! Men don’t get that a great photograph needs personality and emotion. Steven gets it.
We take a break and Steven brings out another beer. I never drink in the afternoon and I still have my ride home. I agree to share one more. Why not relax and have fun! I feel like we’re already friends. We talk about food and the great restaurants nearby in Astoria. One of my favorite grocery stores is not far away, just down the street. I plan on stopping there on the way home to pick up some feta cheese and a jar of ajvar.
I finally pick myself up to go and begin to pack my bag. We exchange cards. Mine is a big four page thing with some of my mirror photographs. Steven mentions how he admires that series and I remember I packed one of my mirrors before I left; just in case. I pulled out the mirror and we laugh. We walk back into the studio and I figure out how and where to shoot the mirror portrait of Steven. These pictures are always complicated, trying to make the background and reflection work together. I have to find the light that works on the person and his reflection.
Again I’m moving chairs and artwork. I find a place where I can capture both Steven and his work. I look for shapes and a design to fit into my composition. Steven is even more relaxed than before. That allows me to completely focus on the images I see through the viewfinder. We’re close to each other. I can reach the mirror, making adjustments to the reflection without speaking out directions. I show Steven the images. I think he likes the work.
The late afternoon ride home seems much easier than the ride to Astoria. I stop at the top of the bridge to take in the view and snap a few pictures. I ride slowly through Central Park watching the crowds of people. It was a very good day.