Photographer Interviews

Finding that Creative Spark: Notes from PDN Photo Annual Winners

May 25, 2018

By Holly Stuart Hughes


In 2000, Christopher Anderson photographed protests in the Gaza Strip by young Palestinians.

Where do photographers find the style or passion that distinguishes their work from that of other photographers? Over the years PDN has interviewed many distinguished and prolific photographers who described their creative process or the curiosity that drove them to explore favorite subjects and, in the process, make images that are recognizably their own. We revisited our interviews with many of the photographers honored in this year’s annual. PDN subscribers can read the full stories.

Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin

While the duo of Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin have enjoyed numerous exhibitions, van Lamsweerde feels their work hasn’t been fully embraced by the art world. “There is more of a fascination, and a kind of obsession with the glamorous side of what we do,” says van Lamsweerde, referring to fashion work the duo have shot for Chloe, Dior, Lanvin, Vogue Paris and W. “It’s always been a little bit hard for people to understand that we can exist in both worlds and that we’re independent of either world. That’s a fine line that we balance on very deliberately, because that’s the most interesting to us, to be like a free agent and play with the context of both sides.”

Van Lamsweerde admits that there are times when they have been discouraged by the fashion industry. Whenever they hit one of those points, though, something comes along to spur them on. “Usually it comes in the form of a trip to a new place that breeds a lot of new ideas, or in the form of a commission, or in the form of a persona, or in an exhibition,” van Lamsweerde says.

When Kathy Ryan hired van Lamsweerde and Matadin to create portraits of Oscar-nominated actors for The New York Times Magazine, they added celebrity portraiture to their list of credits. For the assignments, they’ve devised a similar lighting set-up and black-and-white esthetic. “Those [Oscar portfolios] have been an incredible experience,” van Lamsweerde says. Working with celebrities “is never difficult,” she adds, despite the fact that they’ve convinced Bill Murray to put flowers in his beard and Viggo Mortensen to paste lace onto his face. “We’re very direct and honest and open … We always try to show someone with as much respect and dignity as we possibly can, and I think this openness of discussing what it is you’d like to do, most people are like, ‘Yeah, great, let’s do it.’”

“They work very seriously, they are open, you can share opinions with them, and I think they are very passionate about what they are doing,” explains Vogue Paris editor Emmanuelle Alt, who has collaborated with van Lamsweerde and Matadin for nearly a decade. “They still have the same enthusiasm as [ever] to do an incredible picture.” Click here to read the full story.

Christopher Anderson

Years before his editorial work and portraits for clients such as New York were catching the eye of commercial clients, Christopher Anderson was a newspaper-trained photojournalist, who covered stories in Afghanistan and the Middle East for US News and World Report, The New York Times Magazine, Fortune and other clients. In 2000, he won the Robert Capa Gold Medal for the images he made while he traveled with Haitian refugees aboard a handmade wooden boat, which sank while crossing the Caribbean. Of the 46 people on the 23-foot boat, all survived after it was spotted by a Coast Guard boat. The story was published in The New York Times Magazine. In a 2002 interview for PDNOnline’s “Legends on Line” series, he discussed his early training, his influences, pitching the story of the Haitian migrants to Kathy Ryan at The New York Times Magazine, and making work that conveys emotion.

“I don’t see a conflict between a picture that is esthetically pleasing or beautiful and a picture that is informative, or having some sort of meaningful content,” he said. “I’m looking for something that’s more emotional or ambiguous. That’s what’s interesting to me about photography.”

Ryan notes that while Anderson covered many foreign news stories for The New York Times Magazine, what set his work apart was its intimacy. “What Chris brings to these stories is a very artistic rendering,” she told PDN. “His images transcend the event and somehow become a little more iconic, a little bit more representative of the emotion and the feel of what’s going on at the time.” Click here for more.

© Dayanita Singh

Dayanita Singh’s Museum Bhavan is a set of books that encourage readers to create their own exhibitions of her work. © Dayanita Singh

Dayanita Singh

In her new book, Museum Bhavan, photographer Dayanita Singh seeks to change the relationship of artist and viewer. The book, which she calls a “pocket museum,” is printed and bound in a way that encourages the people who buy it to organize their own exhibitions of Singh’s work. Museum Bhavan is really nine small, accordion fold books housed in a clamshell.

The Museum Bhavan book grew out of Singh’s ongoing exhibition of the same name, which she debuted in 2015 at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi. Singh created the “Museum Bhavan” exhibition in reaction to her “concerns with showing in museums,” she explains. She wanted to be able to change the configuration of the exhibition space and “to change my work all the time, to bring in new images and take away images. You know how images change when they’re in conversation with other images.” She created a handful of temporary wooden walls that display photographs and can be moved and adjusted to create different spaces within a gallery. They also allow Singh to evolve the exhibition continuously by changing photographs and sequences.

The book takes the concept further, describing the entirety of the art-making process, from making the photos, to looking at and editing the images and then choosing how to present them to the world. “You might install Museum Bhavan in your house. You might build shelves for each one of the books, and then you have an exhibition going on in your house or your community center or some school, or just passing them around at a dinner party,” she says.

Singh, known as an innovative editor of her own work, explains, “The photograph for me is very connected to the form it takes, and I guess for me the forms that existed are not enough—just the print on the wall or the book, it’s not enough, because I want them to be structures that can grow and enlarge, wax and wane…. I don’t want to just show you the print as the final work, and I think we photographers have such a great gold mine in our contact sheets,” she says. “The idea of pulling one print out and then that print being fetishized is not the only way.” To see more from her book, click here.

Stephen Shore: The Gregory Crewdson Interview

In 2011, we asked photographer Gregory Crewdson to interview Stephen Shore. Shore, who first showed his groundbreaking series, “American Surfaces,” in the 1970s, had his first career retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art open in December 2017. To coincide with the retrospective, Aperture published a new book in which 15 photographers, writers and cultural figures chose their favorite Shore photos. Each discussed the influence of Shore’s iconic images of American scenes and his ability to elevate the ordinary.

In his 2011 interview, Crewdson asked Shore if “American Surfaces,” which he shot during road trips around the American continent, was a piece of social commentary, or a study of form. Shore replied, “Any artist can deal with both content and structure at the same time and have two paths of exploration, so I think they were both going on. In formal terms, I wanted to make pictures that looked—the way I put it at the time was ‘natural.’ Today I might use: ‘less mediated by visual convention.’ What was it like to look? What was it like to see the world? And how is that different from the way people photograph?” Shore added, “This was part of my interest in snapshots. Every now and then one would come across a snapshot that had this raw, unmediated spontaneity and I wanted to use the form of the pictures to refer to that. At the same time I was also taking pictures that you would never see in a snapshot and so it plays against the form.”

Many of his subjects were mundane: They included motel interiors and his breakfast. “I didn’t think about beauty a lot. During ‘American Surfaces,’ I was photographing every meal I ate and what art on walls looked like. I saw myself as an explorer. I was thinking about the structural problems in the photograph, [about] photography as a technical means of communicating what the world looks like if you see it in a state of heightened awareness. The subject matter that interested me for various other reasons was the perfect subject matter for this exploration, because if the subject matter is too highly charged, a viewer can become involved in those aspects of the picture and be less open to the subtler aspects of it.”

Shore also talked to Crewdson about the influence of work by Walker Evans and Ed Ruscha, and of teaching student photographers, a task that he says has “pushed my own boundaries.” “My goal as a teacher is to help [my students] find their own voice, so if I have ten people in class it means I have to think like ten different people, and that has proven to be an interesting mental exercise because then when I go out to take pictures, it’s like I’ve been flexing my esthetic faculty and I simply see more potential or see more opportunities, and wind up taking pictures that don’t look like my pictures.” Click here to read the full interview between Gregory Crewdson and Stephen Shore.

Art Streiber: On Why Sharing Knowledge with Other Photographers Benefits Him

Becoming a successful photographer takes more than just picking up some advice here and there, says portrait photographer Art Streiber. He tells PDN that he’s freely shared his advice at PhotoPlus Expo, other industry events, and with his past assistants and studio managers. “By sharing advice with an assistant, he says, “You’ve made the path a little bit easier, but he or she has to figure it out. There’s so much more to it than just a few lighting tips or a list of magazine editors.”

When he shows new assistants his method of lighting a shot, he expects them to “share it, and gain knowledge and eventually say, ‘Why don’t we try this?’” He encourages them to offer their own ideas for solving technical problems. “There’s always something new to learn, and my photo assistants are working for the top photographers around the world in situations I’ve never been in,” he notes. “You’re foolish not to listen to the input of experienced crew.”

Assistants he’s worked with in the past have gone on to become successful photographers, digital techs and photo editors. Streiber says his network of past apprentices is “awesome.”

Streiber also readily shares his marketing and his approach to production with colleagues who go to his talks and seminars. His goal, he says, is to share “standards of professionalism.” Photographers “get a bad rap,” he says. One day, his daughter came home from school and asked him if he’s a paparazzo. “I’m trying to maintain and raise the standard of what professional photography is,” he says. Read the whole story here.

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To read more photographer profiles, visit our Photographer Interviews page and our “From the Archive” page on PDNOnline.

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