The human subjects in Jessica Lange's photographs seem to be searching for something: love, a kiss, a ride, a connection, a place, or maybe just an escape. Lange --
a two-time Academy Award-winning actress known for her work in such films as Tootsie and Frances and the TV movie A Streetcar Named Desire -- celebrates the publication of 50 Photographs by Jessica Lange (powerHouse Books) with a book signing on Saturday, Dec. 13, at Photo-eye Gallery.Some of the black-and-white images look like film stills --
a few suggesting a noir influence, with characters set against a shadowy urban backdrop. Pasatiempo spoke by phone with Lange, who was promoting the book in New York City.
Pasatiempo: What I see in your photos of people is a longing of some sort.
Jessica Lange: When we culled through the photographs and started to put this book together -- and it's not like I had thousands, or even hundreds, of photographs -- [art director] Sam Shahid designed the book with the idea of limiting it to 50. So when we started putting runs together of how one photograph would flow into another, I began to see a pattern of my own photography that I hadn't really consciously been aware of: this kind of solitariness, this human aloneness that I began to see as a recurring theme. What you're talking about is an offshoot of that, a desire for something that comes out of that human stillness -- not necessarily loneliness. I guess there's something solitary about these people. I'm drawn to that. It's always interesting when you get an impulse to pick up a camera and point it at something; what is that? You're responding to something human, whether it be a gesture or a predicament or a
connection between two people.
Pasa: What do these photos say about you?
Lange: Obviously they comment on what interests me on a human level. It comes back to that theme of the human predicament, whether it be loneliness or passion or warmth. But it's hard for me to say, because it's so new to me. It's much different when I talk about acting, because that's something I've been doing for 30 years, and I've been talking about my process and how I arrive at something and what attracts me to the work. But to talk about photography, it sounds more elusive. So if I sound really vague, it's because I am! I haven't formulated a lot of answers yet to people's questions. It does speak to a certain kind of condition that I recognize in myself -- a stillness or solitariness. But also even in the photos that don't have people, there's a certain kind of theatricality that I'm drawn to, whether it be the light or the kind of shadows that are cast. Even the landscapes have a kind of loneliness to them.
We formed the book over a year's time. It was a very fluid process, so that the book began to take shape by itself in an unconscious way -- conscious in the sense that we were adding and subtracting to it, but not conscious that I set out to make a book about something in particular. It was much more random than that. But because we were limited to the 50 photographs, it began to have a kind of fluidity to it, a continuity, and when I look at it now, I see that it's in the light, it's in the gesture. I think I'm very interested in simple gestures -- the way somebody touches someone else or the way a woman leans down to buckle her shoe. Coming out of theater and out of film, I look for an almost dramatic setting. A lot of my shots are shot at night or in very low light or at a time of day when the shadows are kind of overwhelming.
I'm attracted to that kind of lack of clarity.
Pasa: So your acting background does influence your photography?
Lange: Yes. It has made a big difference in my photography. I'm drawn to moments and situations and lighting that in some way has that cinematic quality. It's not like I create a lighting situation or I create a connection between the people. It's more on the fly, to shoot as kind of anonymously and secretly as I possibly can.
Pasa: Looking at the photos now, do you see something different from what you saw when you took those shots?
Lange: That's very curious. There are times when I could be out shooting, and I'll think, Oh my God, this will be an incredible photograph. Then you shoot the roll of film, you get it back, you're so anxious to get the contact sheet and look at them, and you think, wow, that one didn't work out at all the way I thought. But here's one I don't even remember taking that's very interesting. I have to say there are times where I'll have taken a shot that could even be a throwaway thing, and I'm amazed at what's been captured as far as light, framing, composition, or just the moment when a gesture strikes or an expression changes it all.
Pasa: You spoke of shooting as anonymously as possible.
I have an image of you wandering the streets at night into parts of the town that maybe aren't very safe.
Lange: I am wandering out there. Especially in Mexico.
I tend to wander alone a lot. I love shooting at night with just whatever ambient light there is. It's kind of great because a lot of times you can shoot without being noticed, which is what I really like. I love just having my camera and wandering the streets of some village in Mexico for a couple of hours. I've done it all over the world but probably more in Mexico than any place. It's an absolute contradiction to how you work in film, where it's such a collaboration. Unless you're practicing a monologue by yourself in your room, acting is not a form that can be practiced in solitude. You're so dependent on so many different elements coming together. The great thing about photography is that I can wander around for hours by myself and not be dependent upon anything or anyone else.
Pasa: How do you see yourself being defined by this work, photography being such a different art form from acting?
Lange: I don't know. It's all so new. I have no idea how it's going to be received or perceived or judged. I love doing it.
In all honesty, I started it not with the intention of pursuing
it as something that there was an endgame to. I didn't take photographs to be in a book or have a gallery show. I did it because it gave me something to do when I wasn't making movies. Now it's become public, and that in itself is a difficult thing for me. Obviously, when I'm going to do a movie or rehearsing for the theater, I know
at some point that it's going to become a public event. With the photography, it was never intended to be a public event. I'm not quite sure how I feel about it yet.
Pasa: I'd like to ask you about a few specific photos in the book, like that bear reaching out within the small cage.
Lange: That was the very first roll of film I shot. Sam [actor and playwright Sam Shepard, with whom Lange has lived since 1982] had been working in Germany and brought back a Leica as a gift. I thought, I should start shooting. I was on a trip, we were traveling in Romania just after the fall of [President Nicolae] Ceaus'escu, and it was very controlled and spooky, and we were at a roadside checkpoint, and they had this bear in this little horrible cage.
Pasa: And the young girl in the back seat whose face is reflected in the mirror of a vehicle?
Lange: I was chaperoning a middle-school end-of-the-year field trip
to an amusement park, and it was the bus ride home, and I was sitting in the middle of the bus, and I just noticed her leaning in the back.
I thought her expression was so beautiful and wistful and dreamy.
Pasa: Do you want to know the story behind the people, the animals, even the landscapes and buildings that you shoot, or is the photo
Lange: I know as much as what I capture in that moment.
Pasa: Since you've been on the other side of the camera yourself as an actress and celebrity, can you see yourself segueing into photographing fashion shots or portraits of celebrities?
Lange: I don't know if I would be able to shoot according to somebody else's requirements. I wouldn't mind if they said, "Would you photograph so-and-so?" -- especially if it was somebody I knew, and I could just do it the way I do it, just follow them and tag along and catch them at unprepared moments. But as far as doing it as an assignment?
I wouldn't know how to go into a studio and set up the lights and shoot somebody in that sense. And commercial-wise, no. You have to follow too many rules. I'm not that kind of photographer.
Jessica Lange signs 50 Photographs by Jessica Lange
3-5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 13
Photo-eye Gallery, 376