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Articles from October 2009

Featured Parader: Lynn Gilbert

October 15, 2009

You’ve been in the photography industry for over 45 years. How did you get started?

I wanted photos of my children but whatever photos of children that I saw seemed only to capture the surface, not their interior lives. I wanted the mudane daily moments and the important moments, and that wasn’t possible, unless I had some documentary photographer traipsing around after them around at all times and that certainly wasn’t in the cards. So I decided to do it myself

Photos that I had seen seemed to capture only the surface but not the interior life of the child, as though one child could be substituted for any other. Children’s photos of that day reminded me of the late 19th century photos where families were on assembly line in front of a curtain, one family followed by another. Only the clothes and styles were different 30 to 45 years ago. Even candid photos had that generic quality.

Getting a child to relax sufficiently so that they no longer think of the camera, is the moment you are able to capture both body language, almost looking into their souls. It takes time, enormous patience, gentleness, a heightened awareness and being totally focused so that when that one moment occurs you are able to grab and record it. You have to be incredibly watchful the whole time you work with them, to see how they generally move, what is typical, what isn’t. If you look at the body language of the kids in the portraits, these portraits are them. For kids and their parents, allowing a total stranger into their lives takes work.

Tell us a little about the story of “children in repose”. How did that project develop?

After I started documenting my own children, I knew I needed a huge, I don’t know right word, so that I could practice and get better. I also wanted to document my kids in school, both for them and me. How many kids would be able to look back on their early childhood and see what their experience was like at school? I needed to figure out how to do this. I originally asked the head of my children’s nursery school if she would allow me into the class for a day or so. I would be very discreet. I took enough pictures of other children that I realized other parents might also want to have these same kind of pictures. Where else could you get candid pictures of kids in school? So I asked the school if I could offer them to the parents. I would charge some amount, never a lot just to cover the cost and help the scholarship fund. Everyone wanted the pictures. Parents bought them, the school got money, and I racked up enormous experience. I did it for many years in a number of schools.

Kids fascinated me, I saw them not as little giggly kids, but as fully formed individuals with defined characters. I wanted portraits of them in their own environment which would reflect their range of ethnic backgrounds and rich to poor. I started picking out children that I knew would photograph well, even off the street. I never knew what result I was going to get. I learned I had to accept whatever. The kid could be terrific, the background lousy. I’d just pray that with all that effort that I put in, at the end of the day, I would at least get a few portraits that I could be proud of.

I started going into other schools. I’d take my portfolio to show it to the headmaster and they would take me through the classrooms and let me pick kids. That would never ever happen today. Eventually I even had scouts looking for children whom I could photograph. I had two or three who knew what made a kid photograph well. They’d say, “I found a good kid.” I got kids from all over the city [New York]. One person who helped me had a great eye. Whatever it was, she understood.
It was a tremendous amount of work. Over the years I calculated that I must have photographed at least 700 kids. Although near the end of time I did this, some were just group portraits. In private homes I did 107 families, many with two kids.

I was fanatic about developing and printing my own work. I learned to print with Arnold Newman’s assistant, who used to come to the house once a week, and would stay with me in my cubicle of a bathroom, filled with fumes, printing. Some prints, or really most of them, I did over and over till I got it right. Although I did it so many times, with such miniscule variations that after I washed them archivally, I couldn’t tell which was the final print, so I took to tearing the corner. When I think about it now, I realize it was so silly. If I couldn’t tell the difference between a good print and what I considered an inferior one, why do it so many times? But it takes a lifetime to recognize one’s own foolishness and I was always, and probably still am, a perfectionist. Much as I hate to admit it, I’d probably do the same thing today.

Getting the picture took a minimum of an hour and a half, I can’t remember when it ever took less. I’d talk with the kids and they enjoyed it because it was relaxed, I was interested in them and as we talked and moved around, I got them used to hearing the click of the camera, so that even though I knew none of the pictures I was what I wanted, they gradually forgot that the camera was there. I used to take 4 rolls of 36 exposures. I used a Nikon with multiple lenses, and also had a big set up of lights.

When I had a large enough body of work I took them to Arnold Newman, who was one of the great photographers of the day, whom I knew because my aunt and uncle were his childrens’ god parents. I wanted to hear his honest response. I wasn’t looking for his approval. You learn more from constructive criticism, but I got something that absolutely threw me for a loop, something that I never expected. He looked at the pictures and all he did was groan. Finally he said that I should take his master’s class. The whole experience was devastating. I went home completely depressed. Sometime later as soon as his class was offered, I girded myself, and took the class. I walked into the class room, filled with professional photographers, and was stunned as he turned at least 20 some people, and said, that I had taken the best children’s pictures he had ever seen. (obviously not including Lewis Carrol.) I was stupefied.

But there was nothing that I could really do with my photographs. I was in some group shows, a portfolio appeared in a major photo magazine, but gallery owners would look at the pictures, look at me, and say “Did you do these?” I don’t know who they thought did them, but they all said the same thing. No one would buy portraits of other people’s children. So the portraits have languished for 33 years in the closet, and I only pulled them out because I needed something to beef up my website. I almost threw all of them out with the negatives which I did with a lot of pictures from my book on women. I figured, 25 years had passed since I did that book, what was I filling up space for when that part of my life was over? I could store the things I use to keep my filing cabinets in order. The children’s portraits were from at least 33 years ago, and just as I was about to toss them, I said, “No, I don’t think so.”

I must admit that for a long time, it really broke my heart that I couldn’t do anything with them because I really loved them, and I loved what, in the final analysis, they really represented. This just wasn’t about kids in their own environment, it showed how boys and girls are really different, which everyone knows, but it is even more obvious in the portraits. The boys for the most part have a much much more aggressive stance, and the girls are more seductive. Differences in socioeconomic background has a profound effect in how we emerge as men and women. Children on the lower economic scale are much much freer. You can see it in their body language, They are looser. As you go up the economic ladder the kids are significantly more inhibited. They are stiff. The more pictures I took, the more I saw it.

How did the women’s study come to be? What are the highlights?

It started by taking Louise Nevelson’s portrait (Number 11.) I had taken my portfolio of children to a friend ata that time, Arne Glimcher of the Pace Gallery, because I valued his opinion. He had, and I’m sure still does, an extraordinary eye, and he said I had to do his kids. I wasn’t looking to solicit business, but I did do his kids, and after that he said that I had to “do” Nevelson for the gallery. At the time she was the foremost sculptress in America..

It was out of that experience that I got the idea to do a book on women. I did a whole series of Nevelson’s portraits. One became her official portrait and was used everywhere. I have guarded a letter where she wrote that these were the best pictures she ever had. They were used in countless books, magazines, and on brochures. When my book came out it and a dozen of the portraits were in Rizzoli’s window.

I wanted to get back to doing kids, and had thought this was a great opportunity to do a book on women. First, it would be wonderful and, secondly, it would give me credibility.

That project evolved to a book on 46 women who contributed and changed the way our society lived. Particular Passions: Talks with Women Who Shaped our Times, 1981 with Gaylen Moore took three years to research, conceive and develop because there was no such thing as an internet. It was grueling. I had to convince all these women that they should be in this book. In the beginning, everybody told me it wasn’t doable. I wasn’t and am still not anybody, and how could I possibly reach and convince these women to be part of a book when I didn’t even have a publisher? But I certainly didn’t tell the women that.

Eventually, after five years, I got a publisher on the basis of my own passion. To photograph the women, I used the same method as the children but because many of them were extremely well known, I researched their lives like crazy and went in knowing what ever there was to know about them. I think they were all stunned, and I c put them at ease. They went from not wanting to spend time to all giving me lots of time. I raced home to document the stories they told me.

The first writer didn’t want to use the stories. I thought that was nuts. Capitalize and add, don’t discard. This is not about ego. So I had to look for another writer, that was a killer. It took a year and a half, I must have interviewed to 30–40 potential writers until I finally found one who was gifted and with whom I could work. When the book was finally published, it went into hardcover and soft cover twice; it was even translated into Japanese. More than 20 years later, the book was being taught in a women’s study class and was the core book.

You’ve done a lot of travel photography over the years. Where are your favorite places to shoot? Why?

The more remote the better. I really enjoy traveling by myself.

I used to feel like a camera inhibited my travel experience. I never brought one. But then I learned that the presence of the camera caused me to be more aware of where I was.
I went to India, the Himalayas with a point and shoot camera. I was so ill they brought me down. The doctor expected me to go home. It was 108 degrees. I got to take pictures because I had a driver in the cars. I had the time of my life. That’s what got me back into photography 12 years ago.

What are you working on now?

I still take classes. I work at photography. In 2003, Christie’s auction house asked for a portrait of Dorothy Miller.

How did you come to Parade?

Alison Curry is a technology guru, with a huge network and knowledge that will connect you with all the right products and sources, not just to create a website, but most importantly – to maximize your online presence which brings you forward in search engines results. She is on top of emerging trends to ensure that her clients are well positioned as technology advances. She is a joy to work with, professional, follows through meticulously and is eminently fair.

Check out Lynn’s portfolio

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