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|The Artist Observed
by John Gruen
|I've been observing artists for well over half a century--the poets and musicians, the painters, sculptors, printmakers, photographers, installation and video artists who have shaped the creative American landscape and given form and substance to an American esthetic.
Of course, being married to an artist for nearly 50 years has offered special insights. My wife, the Iowa-born painter Jane Wilson, has provided me with the greatest clues of all about artists: they're all creatures of most peculiar temperament, and make great cooks. Their instincts are rather primitive--that is, they seem to look at life with a certain wariness yet are fearless when it comes to expressing themselves visually. They have drive but tend to be cautious. They have terrific will-power, but tend toward compromise. They're egomaniacs who hate egomania in others. They're passionate yet oddly reserved. They're mainly marvelous looking, but don't obsess about it. They're very good tempered and very bad tempered. And, somewhere, a little crazy.
Sound familiar? Well, of course. Because artists are just like you and me, except they've got the talent. But can talent be photographed?
Alas, not. Only the fire within as seen from without.
Naturally, in photographing an artist, one wants the show the world that this man or this woman has the idealized semblance of the creative person. This, however, is not really possible nor is it my aim. All I seek to do is capture the light in an artist's eyes--that look of "looking out" that artists have--and hope a viewer glimpses the fire within.
But there are gifted artists whose faces seem to camouflage this attribute, whose eyes do not possess "the light," because they do not relish the idea of being seen in that very acquisitive act of looking. They are very private. And yet, artists they surely are!
And so, for me, photographing artists is to deal fervently with the dramas of the human face, no matter what its look. I will confess, artists do have the best faces, but I never think of an artist's art as I look through the lens. I do not ponder an artists' accomplishments as I snap the picture. I only try to make visible a moment of vulnerability that is couched in silence and mystery. Yes, I try to capture "the light" in their eyes, but more importantly, I hope to show the unguarded or, indeed, guarded look of someone acutely aware of being photographed.
Portrait photography is the most intrusive of all the arts. It literally "takes" away a person's most nakedly visible physical attribute and offers it up to the world to be examined, stared at, criticized, loved or dismissed. For the most part the sitter suffers the camera's intrusion. He or she sits or stands there being acquiescent, resigned, unresisting, yielding. It is very touching to observe this--and aids in making the photograph more immediate and poignant.
Finally, what I see in the camera's lens is very different from what the live person in front of me looks like--and it is very different from what the resulting photograph looks like. The image seen through the lens has the ineffable quality of timelessness--even of other-worldliness. It is the image one cannot capture. It is the picture one cannot take. It is that inner person that cannot be seen. But in the lens I can see it. I can feel it. I can observe it. For me, it's enough. The rest is only reality.
New York 1997
"The Artist Observed: Photographs by John Gruen," Jan. 11-Feb. 8, 1997, at Earl McGrath Gallery, 20 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10019.