When I say I want to photograph someone, what it really means is that I'd like to know them. Anyone I know I photograph.
I don't try to overintellectualize my concepts of people. In fact, the ideas I have, if you talk about them, they seem extremely corny and it's only in their execution that people can enjoy them...It's something I've learned to trust: The stupider it is, the better it looks.
...When I started to be published I thought about Margaret Bourke-White and the whole journalistic approach to things. I believed I was supposed to catch life going by me – that I wasn’t to alter it or tamper with it – that I was just to watch what was going on and report it as best I could. This shoot with John was different. I got involved, and I realized that you can’t help but be touched by what goes on in front of you. I no longer believe that there is such a thing as objectivity. Everyone has a point of view. Some people call it style, but what we’re really talking about is the guts of a photograph. When you trust your point of view, that’s when you start taking pictures.
Do you think your subjects relax more because you’re a woman ?
I just always think of myself as a photographer. I never separated those things. I never thought, well, I’m a woman and that’s why I’m getting these images as opposed to other images, if that’s what you’re asking. Are you saying that there’s a woman’s point of view in my pictures ?
Well, yes, I am suggesting that about your point of view. But I’m also thinking about what happens to an individual psychologically when he or she is in front of the camera. One of the most obvious things to grab onto in that complex experience is the person who is taking your picture.
I think that in the beginning, particularly, when I was younger, I didn’t seem threatening, and that was useful. I like to think that I let the subject be whoever they want to be, and maybe the fact that I’m a woman makes that process easier. I don’t know. Perhaps I empathize with the subjects more than a male photographer might, and so when I direct a sitting ideas may come more often from the people I’m photographing. For example, with the Sting picture, people ask, “How did you get Sting to undress ?”. Well, I didn’t. We were in the desert, out in the middle of nowhere; it was very hot and stark. And he said he wanted to take his clothes off. It felt very natural to him.
The first thing I did with my very first camera was climb Mt. Fuji. Climbing Mt. Fuji is a lesson in determination and moderation. It would be fair to ask if I took the moderation part to heart. But it certainly was a lesson in respecting your camera. If I was going to live with this thing, I was going to have to think about what that meant. There were not going to be any pictures without it.
One doesn't stop seeing. One doesn't stop framing. It doesn't turn off and turn on. It's on all the time.
I've said about a million times that the best thing a young photographer can do is to stay close to home. Start with your friends and family, the people who will put up with you. Discover what it means to be close to your work, to be intimate with a subject. Measure the difference between that and working with someone you don't know as much about. Of course there are many good photographs that have nothing to do with staying close to home, and I guess what I'm really saying is that you should take pictures of something that has meaning for you...
There is this idea that in portraiture it's the photographer's job to set the subject at ease. I don't believe that.
I don't have a single favorite photograph. What means most to me is the body of my work. The accumulation of photographs over the years.
Those who want to be serious photographers, you're really going to have to edit your work. You're going to have to understand what you're doing. You're going to have to not just shoot, shoot, shoot. To stop and look at your work is the most important thing you can do.
The cover is not a photograph. I mean you might as well be doing advertising; it really is designed to sell the magazine.
I’m pretty used to people not liking having their picture taken. I mean, if you do like to have your picture taken, I worry about you.
...I gave up on being a journalist—I thought having a point of view was more important than being objective.
In this day and age of things moving so, so fast, we still long for things to stop, and we as a society love the still image.
It’s like sitting in a room with ghosts. You go through your pictures and you think about what that shoot was like, who that person was, what that meant, that time in your own life.
Very much like everyone else, I’m using what’s out there now and learning how to use it. Like everyone else, I sometimes go too far... There’s a little too much [digital] hanky panky with this stuff and I want to try to bring it back.
There’s this idea that it’s the portrait photographer’s job to set the subject at ease. I don’t believe in setting people at ease.
I like going somewhere with one small battery-powered light source, and maybe some bounce boards and an umbrella in case you don't have a choice about how bright the sun is. When you start to build up too much equipment, you're just dead. You can't move. You can't pivot. You can't change your mind.
My experience of learning in the darkroom with black-and-white film had limitations that were helpful. There were fewer choices. When digital came along, I didn’t jump into it. But it was obvious that this is what was going to be. If you do this for a long time, everything changes.
Photography is actually a wonderful medium for a young person to just go out and discover themselves and discover the world around them. It gives them permission to go out and have a purpose and observe.
You just have to work and not give up during the miserable times. It's actually rewarding to keep doing it when you think you can't do it anymore. It only gets more interesting. I can't tell you how important it is to express yourself and then take your own feelings and express what's going on in this world.
I like people to look good. I don’t mean good as in glamorous. I was photographing my parents for their fiftieth wedding anniversary, and I thought, “Maybe I’m going to do an Avedon.” I was thinking of the pictures he took of his father. Then I look at my parents and I want them to be beautiful. I mean, I want to love how they look.
When I take portraits of people, I can usually get them to relax—although I don’t try to make them relax. In fact, I’m as interested in someone being uncomfortable as I am in their being comfortable. There is a myth that the portrait photographer is supposed to make the subject relax, and that’s the real person. But I’m interested in whatever is going on. And I’m not that comfortable myself!
As a young person, and I know it’s hard to believe that I was shy, but you could take your camera, and it would take you to places: it was like having a friend, like having someone to go out with and look at the world. I would do things with a camera I wouldn’t do normally if I was just by myself.
Sometimes I enjoy just photographing the surface because I think it can be as revealing as going to the heart of the matter.
My early childhood equipped me really well for my portrait work: The quick encounter, where you are not going to know the subject for very long. These days I am much more comfortable with the fifteen minute relationship, than I am with a life long relationship.
...“Rolling Stone” started giving me assignments right away, which made me worry about having crossed over to the other side. I was selling pictures. The photographers I admired were not photographers who worked for magazines on assignment, but people who chose what they did from the inside – or so it seemed at the time. And I wondered if I was betraying something. And then I found out about what it meant to be published, especially what it was to have a photograph on the cover of a magazine, which is what happened a couple of months later. I can never forget the sensation of being at a newsstand and seeing for the first time my photograph transformed into the “Rolling Stone” cover. It was a lot different from having a photograph floating around in the wash, or pinned on a bulletin board at school.
…Photography’s like this baby that needs to be fed all the time. It’s always hungry. It needs to be read to, taken care of. I had to nourish my work with different approaches. One of the reasons that I went to Vanity Fair was that I knew I would have a broader range of subjects – writers, dancers, artists and musicians of all kinds. And I wanted to learn about glamour. I admire the work of photographers like Beaton, Penn, and Avedon, as much as I respected grittier photographers such as Robert Frank. But in the same way that I’d had to find my own way of reportage, I had to find my own form of glamour.
Do you ever think about doing a self-portrait ?
(…) I think self-portraits are very difficult. I’ve always seen mine as straightforward, very stripped down, hair pulled back. No shirt. Whatever light happened to be available. I’d want it to be very graphic – about darkness and light. No one else should be there, but I’m scared to do it by myself. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. The whole idea of a self-portrait is strange. I’m so strongly linked to how I see through the camera that to get to the other side of it would be difficult. It would be as if I were taking a photograph in the dark.
Computer photography won't be photography as we know it. I think photography will always be chemical.
All dancers are, by and large, a photographer's dream. They communicate with their bodies and they are trained to be completely responsive to a collaborative situtation..
One doesn't stop seeing. One doesn't stop framing. It doesn't turn off and turn on. It's on all the time.
The camera makes you forget you’re there. It’s not like you are hiding but you forget, you are just looking so much.
Somewhere in the raw material was the nucleus of what the picture would become. It could be simple. There's a case to be made that the simpler the idea the better.
If I didn’t have my camera to remind me constantly, I am here to do this, I would eventually have slipped away, I think. I would have forgotten my reason to exist.
There is a myth that the portrait photographer is supposed to make the subject relax, and that’s the real person. But I’m interested in whatever is going on. And I’m not that comfortable myself.
I don’t mind doing something obvious. I’m not looking for the ultimate image, the ultimate essence of someone. The chances of that happening are far and few between.
In portraiture, you have so much leeway, so much latitude. You can be conceptual. You can be abstract. You can tell a story. You can be journalistic if you want. You have so many options available in portraiture, and you're not confined to one idea.
Photographing the people close to you, the people who will put up with you, is probably the most rewarding work you will do. It may never be published, but it is the work that you should care about most and embrace.
I’m an observer. I like to be somewhere. I like to see something unfold. I love the light changing. The studio doesn’t give me any of that. I don’t have enough to grab onto. I miss the storytelling aspect.
You can have what you think is the best equipment, and it doesn't help if you can't see. It takes years to understand how to see. It just takes doing it over and over and over. One of the reasons I'm still doing it is I love to do it. I love to look.
Some days will feel like magic, and some days will feel terrible. It's like life. It will have its ups and downs. It is a life, and it is a relationship. It needs to be nurtured and taken care of and fed. And the rewards can be wonderful.
In a portrait you have room to have a point of view. The image may not be literally what’s going on, but it’s representative.
I started out as a photojournalist, and quickly became what people call a portrait photographer. Maybe portraits will always be what interest me most, but I’ve always wanted to take pictures without people in them.
I’m still fascinated by the surprise of images—that images can be so powerful. And I want them to be powerful before they’re laid down in the magazine spread. There are a lot of photographs that work well for magazines, but don’t work outside of them. But real photographs have to have a life outside of the magazine; I mean, outside that very powerful form of presentation a magazine provides. Each image has to stand on its own.