I hate cameras. They interfere, they’re always in the way. I wish: if I could just work with my eyes alone. To get a satisfactory print, one that contains all that you intended, is very often more difficult and dangerous than the sitting itself. When I’m photographing, I immediately know when I’ve got the image I really want. But to get the image out of the camera and into the open, is another matter.
Youth never moves me. I seldom see anything very beautiful in a young face. I do, though - - in the downward curve of Maugham’s lips, in Isak Dinesen’s hands. So much has been written there, there is so much to be read, if one could only read. I feel most of the people in my book, Observations, are earthly saints. Because they are obsessed, obsessed with work of one sort or another. To dance, to be beautiful, tell stories, solve riddles, perform in the street. Zavattini’s mouth and Escudero’s eyes, the smile of Marie-Louise Bousquet: they are sermons on bravado.
My photographs don’t go below the surface. They don’t go below anything. They’re readings of the surface. I have great faith in surfaces. A good one is full of clues. But whenever I become absorbed in the beauty of a face, in the excellence of a single feature, I feel I’ve lost what’s really there…been seduced by someone else’s standard of beauty or by the sitter’s own idea of the best in him. That’s not usually the best. So each sitting becomes a contest.
I believe in maniacs. I believe in type As. I believe that you’ve got to love your work so much that it is all you want to do. I believe you must betray your mistress for your work, you betray your wife for your work; I believe that she must betray you for her work. I believe that work is the one thing in the world that never betrays you, that lasts. If I were going to be a politician, if I were going to be a scientist, I would do it every day. I wouldn’t wait for Monday. I don’t believe in weekends.
If you’re headed for a life that’s only involved with making money and that you hope for satisfaction somewhere else, you’re headed for a lot of trouble. And whatever replaces vodka when you’re 45 is what you’re going to be doing.
A portrait photographer depends upon another person to complete his picture. The subject imagined, which in a sense is me, must be discovered in someone else willing to take part in a fiction he can’t possibly know about. My concerns are not his. We have separate ambitions for the image. His need to plead his case probably goes as deep as my need to plead mine, but the control is with me.
I often feel that people come to me to be photographed as they would go to a doctor or a forture teller--to find out how they are. So they’re dependent on me. I have to engage them. Otherwise there’s nothing to photograph. The concentration has to come from me and involve them. Sometimes the force of it grows so strong that sounds in the studio go unheard. Time stops. We share a brief, intense intimacy. But it’s unearned. It has no past...no future. And when the sitting is over—when the picture is done—there’s nothing left except the photograph...the photograph and a kind of embarrassment. They leave..and I don’t know them. I’ve hardly heard what they’ve said. If I meet them a week later in a room somewhere, I expect they won’t recognize me. Because I don’t feel I was really there. At least the part of me that was is now in the photograph. And the photographs have a reality for me that the people don’t. It’s through the photographs that I know them.
I am only stimulated by people, never by ideas, almost never. It is always an emotional response. It is always an emotional response. It is always between myself and myself and another person – this is what it boils dwon to. I am not interested in the technique of photography or of camera. I am not interested in light. What I want is light in which the subject is free to move in any way without falling into an ugly light. So that I can get to them, to the expression they make, so that they are free to do or express something which is the way I feel. The camera is most in the way. If I could do what I want with my eyes alone, I would be happy. Then when I get it on paper, on the negative, if there was something in the eyes when I took the picture, then when I look at the print, there are things that I can do to emphasize that. But when I’m used to an approach,it becomes like a person that I have no response to. The approach to the print is like the approach to the sitter. Certain qualities in the print say what I mean. I hate photographs, most photographs. I cannot take a picture of something I have not known and experienced myself, because I do not know what is going on. The photograph is not reportage. I do not believe that something reports itself in a photograph. It is redrawn; it is something I am saying.
I don't really remember the day when I stood behind my camera with Henry Kissinger on the other side. I am sure he doesn't remember it either. But this photograph is here now to prove that no amount of kindness on my part could make this photograph mean exactly what he.. or even I.. wanted it to mean. It's a reminder of the wonder and terror that is a photograph.
I was overwhelmed. Mrs. Vreeland kept calling me Aberdeen and asking me if a wedding
dress didn’t make me want to cry. They’re all serious, hardworking people—they just speak
a different language.
So I took my own models out to the beach. I photographed them barefoot, without gloves, running along the beach on stilts, playing leapfrog. When the pictures came in, Brodovitch laid them out on the table and the fashion editor said, ‘these can’t be published. These girls are barefoot.’ Brodovitch printed them. After that, I was launched very quickly. Those candid snapshots were in direct contrast to what was being done. I came in at a time when there weren’t any young photographers working in a free way. Everyone was tired, the war was over, Dior let the skirts down, and suddenly everything was fun. It was historically a marvelous moment for a fashion photographer to begin. I think if I were starting today, it would be much harder.
There’s always been a separation between fashion and what I call my “deeper” work. Fashion is where I make my living. I’m not knocking it. It’s a pleasure to make a living that way. It’s pleasure, and then there’s the deeper pleasure of doing my portraits. It’s not important what I consider myself to be, but I consider myself to be a portrait photographer.
When the sitting is over, I feel kind of embarrassed about what we’ve shared. It’s so intense. Snapshots that have been taken of me working show something I was not aware of at all, that over and over again I’m holding my own body or my own hands exactly like the person I’m photographing. I never knew I did that, and obviously what I’m doing is trying to feel, actually physically feel, the way he or she feels at the moment I’m photographing them in order to deepen the sense of connection.
My father used to teach me things. He taught me about photography, how light passed through a lens and created a negative, bleaching out areas on sensitized paper. Somehow I realized that my skin could be a sensitized surface. Since [my sister] Louise was the photographic subject of the house, I put a negative of a picture of her on my upper arm, and taped it there with surgical tape. I was eight or nine, and we were still living in Cedarhurst, so I went out into the sun, in the backyard, with the negative taped to my shoulder. I actually kept it there for two or three days. Then I peeled it off, and there was Louise, burned into my skin. That was my first portrait.
I think Jacques Henri Lartigue is the most deceptively simple and penetrating photographer in the short ... embarrassing history of that so-called art. While his predecessors and contemporaries were creating and serving traditions he did what no photographer has done before or since. He photographed his own life. It was as if he knew instinctively and from the very beginning that the real secrets lay in small things. And it was a kind of wisdom— so much deeper than training and so often perverted by it— that he never lost. There is almost no one in this book who isn't a friend ... no moment that wasn't a private one. Lartigue never exhibited his pictures until 1962. He never thought of himself as a photographer. It was just something he did every day... every day for 70 years. Out of love of it. And every day his eye refined and his skill with a camera grew. He was an amateur ... never burdened by ambition or the need to be a serious person.
Because portraiture is performance, and like any performance, in the balance of its effects it is good or bad, not natural or unnatural. I can understand being troubled by this idea—that all portraits are performances—because it seems to imply some kind of artifice that conceals the truth about the sitter.