Sunday, October 11, 2009

Interview: Jessica Lange on Photography

An Interview with Jessica Lange
by D. Eric Bookhardt

“Up until about two or three years ago I didn’t show my photographs to anyone,” said Jessica Lange, revealing something of the reticence that is an essential if unlikely aspect of her persona. Poised and sleek at 60, she seems almost shy surrounded by her pictures at A Gallery for Fine Photography, as if still adjusting to her new role as an exhibited and published photographer. In some ways it harks to her early days as a fledgling documentary filmmaker in New York, where she did modeling jobs to pay the bills until she was discovered by veteran producer Dino de Laurentiis, who cast her as the female lead in his remake of KING KONG in 1976. Several decades and many acting credits and awards later, she seems a little disconcerted, as if it is she who is revealed in her moody, understated and often nocturnal images, and not simply her subjects. In fact, it is this unusually subtle, almost vulnerable quality that imbues her work with its poetic aura. How it all came about is a uniquely personal story that began in 1992 with a gift from her longtime partner, the noted playwright, actor and author, Sam Shepard. Read More:

So what inspired your interest in photography?

I hadn’t thought of photographing for years, but I became interested in doing a series of portraits of my children growing up. Then I started carrying a camera when I traveled, and Sam, who was making a movie in Germany, came back with a Leica, and you know, when someone gives you a Cadillac you have to drive it! But I was very shy at first and never dreamed I’d get to the point where I’d have a show or a book. Even when a friend introduced me to a great master printer, and I learned so much from what he saw and did with my images, I’d get them back and they’d go into a box in the closet. Finally someone said, “let’s take your prints to an art director I know and see what he says,” and he said, “Let’s do a book.” It was nothing I’d planned, but it gave me great solace.

And this is a continuation of your early interest in documentary photography?

Very early on, about 1967, I was an art student at the University of Minnesota and I met some young photographers who convinced me to quit school and go with them to Europe where we made these wonderful documentary films about gypsies and flamenco dancers. Later in New York I met a lot of great documentary photographers and got to work with Robert Frank. Now I think: what if I’d been photographing since 1967, with all the places I’ve been and things I’ve done--what an extraordinary chronicle! But it wasn’t something I considered at the time.

But you started collecting photography at some point?

Yes, in the late 1980s, because there were certain images that I just couldn’t live without. It began with my visits to the Gallery for Fine Photography here--I was very attracted to Southern photographs and collected a lot of Walker Evans, and from there it just kind of expanded. Now it’s a large photography collection that I love; and it’s the only thing that I’ve ever really spent money on.

Your photographs are subtle, atmospheric and moody. How do you describe your vision for what you do?

I shoot what catches my eye. I love shooting at night, and the mystery of what’s hidden, what’s revealed and the relationship between them. And I’m attracted to a certain kind of moment or gesture. I once photographed a young couple in Mexico when there was hardly any light and I remember thinking, Oh God, I just hope I got that boy’s expression! Moments like that don’t come around too often.

Your pictures are all in black and white. Do you feel that black and white conveys gravitas? I know you’re from northern Minnesota, and I recall Bob Dylan’s reflections on how much the long winters up there affected him.

Yes, there’s something that gets in your blood there that’s hard to shake. Bob Dylan grew up nearby and still keeps a place there as I do, and I once I asked him: What do you do when you’re there? And he said, “I walk along the railroad tracks.” Those same tracks appear in my photographs, and yes, there’s a sense of isolation or loneliness up there that I think informs your work and your life.

How do the acting and the photography affect each other, or do they?

Photography is very personal and private, unlike acting, which is so collaborative. It was great because I could wander the streets and have this emotional response that’s not dependent on anyone else. The act of looking and seeing has become so vital to me that I feel changed as a person. But it’s like acting in that you have to be so completely in the moment… It’s a gift.