Interview: Lydia Panas

© Lydia Panas, Pig, from the series "Falling From Grace..."

Lydia Panas is an award winning photographer whose work has been exhibited internationally. Her work is included in many collections including the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago; the Brooklyn Museum; the Zendai Museum of Modern Art; and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. Her work has been published widely in periodicals such as the New York Times Magazine, Photo District News, Popular Photography, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Wall Street Journal Blog. She has also taught photography at numerous institutions.

Her first monograph The Mark of Abel, published by Kehrer Verlag, received a Best Books Nomination from Photo Eye Magazine (2011) and was named in the Photo District News’ PHOTO ANNUAL Books of 2012, as well as a Top Ten Coffee Table Book of 2012 by The Daily Beast.

fototazo: What makes a good portrait?

Lydia Panas: To my eye, a good portrait involves love and trust.

The photographer must be connected, and identify with the subject in some way. A good portrait says as much about the photographer as it says about the subject. A good portrait happens in that space between intention, hope, fear, and whatever else both parties bring to the shoot. A good portrait is borne from love. It happens when there is an active connection and interaction. The portrait needs to reveal something about the photographer and it needs to reveal something about the model simultaneously. A good portraitist needs to be open and attuned to him/herself and to the spirit of the model.

© Lydia Panas, At the Pond, from "The Garden Series"

f: To what degree do you feel that your images create a truth that might not accurately represent the subject or the relationship between the various people in an image, but that might provide a more universal message beyond the specific details of a sitter or group of sitters?

LP: It's such an interesting and difficult question, because the truth, if you can call it that, seems to lie somewhere between the subject and myself, the moment the image was taken, and also, the edit. My vision is at the forefront of every image I make, and while I am very tuned in to the nuance of what is in front of me, my vision is also subjective. All I ask them to do is to stand there. There is always a lot of trust in the relationship.

The photographed moment is both truthful and at the same time only part of the truth. I think with all portraiture, central to the process, is how much of the artist it reveals. Ultimately we can only see what we know. When making a portrait, I emphasize something I see, because I need to, and because it has some relevance to my life. Making art is a narcissistic act, and I think the best work is extremely self-absorbed. I also think this self-involvement needs to be left in the studio.

As for how the relationships play out in my images, it works the same way. I am not making anything up, but I touch upon delicate issues and relationships that in reality, I know very little about. I tune in and my intuition picks up on something. I don't know if the things I connect with affect the models the same way they affect me. We never talk about it. I capture what I need to, and they seem to enjoy it as well. Together we make art. It's lovely. It's a win-win situation.

© Lydia Panas, Jenna, from the series "Untitled (something like love)"

f: In a number of interviews you have previously done, you talk about the subtlety of the images and how they reward slow looking. Let's talk more about the slow speed with which your images reveal themselves. Are you able to exert a lot of control over that process? What are your strategies for and ways of being able to do so?

LP: It's the most magical part of the process and the part I love the most. I guess it's because of these moments that I use photography as my medium. I think your phrase, how they reveal themselves, is very accurate. I may have a slight idea when I begin, about how I want to photograph someone, but it always takes a different turn. I never know what they will look like when they show up. For instance, what they will wear, or how their hair will be. All of these things make a difference in how I see them through the camera. I start to shoot, without necessarily connecting to what I see, and I come to understand what will work and what won't. With every portrait session I discover how I can fit the model into the viewfinder. A tension builds until at a certain point I am excited by what I am seeing and I ask for a few variations to see if I can make it better. And then my fear disappears and I feel amazing and connected and in love.

I control the tone of the session. I need to concentrate. I don't talk too much, and I control the pace of the shots. My strategy is to be patient, and respectful. We need to get used to each other. We ease into the process and I begin to see what I want to capture.

The entire sitting takes about 45 minutes. It's sort of like sex, it starts slowly and then builds. Well, some sex. It's not so much a strategy, it's more like an energy.

© Lydia Panas, Kitty, Christine and Kira, from the series "Untitled (something like love)"

f: In the Mark of Abel, the majority of your subjects are in natural spaces around your property. In Falling From Grace... you photograph subjects with a black background holding food or animal parts. What does working with natural settings and natural subjects bring to your portraiture?

LP: My husband and I made a deliberate move from New York City to a farm in southeastern Pennsylvania to raise our children. We are surrounded by seventy acres. My parents are both from Europe and could be called earthy, and comfortable with the natural world. My father loved to move earth around, and especially loved to plant trees. I guess I absorbed this. Also, since I can remember, my mother was always getting rid of things. I absorbed this kind of minimalist sensibility. I utilize simplicity with the untended landscape in The Mark of Abel and with the plain backgrounds in Falling From Grace…, as well as in the next two series, Untitled (something like love) and After Sargent.

My portraits have no context. Very early, I learned to live between two different cultures. I am interested in what people have in common despite different backgrounds. The pictures are free of possessions or material things. The untended land has an expansive quality. It allows the action to reside completely within the model. This goes a step further with the fabrics as background. As I photograph, the only thing I have to work with, is what happens between us.

I was always attracted to the old Dutch portraits and some early religious works as well. I love the early paintings of faces, often in profile, against a dark black background. The artists worked with so little and yet they got so much. That's always been part of my practice, getting the most from the least. I suppose keeping it natural is an extension of my basic nature and upbringing.

© Lydia Panas, Maria and Corinne, from the series "After Sargent"

f: The subjects in your images are almost always straight-faced. It seems to me that they speak with their hands and body posture instead of through facial expressions. The hand gestures sometimes arrive to the point of feeling very specific, as if they are trying to communicate something concrete and immediate to the viewer. Talk about the gestures in the images and how they are arrived upon while making the images and their importance in communicating content.

LP: People's extremities, their feet, their hands are definitely something I notice, not just in my work, but also in life. They often reveal what a face may conceal. My work refers to how the things we try to conceal, still reveal themselves somehow. This seems most evident in Falling From Grace…, where the expressions are particularly unclear. The hands often give us more information to go by.

The first six years of my life were bi-cultural, and this experience necessitated a kind of attentiveness. I watched closely, to see how other cultures expressed and presented themselves. I still do. I am interested in every nuance, every gesture, and how it may fit in with an overall presentation.

In other words, I am interested in the story behind the story. I am not as interested in what is presented, as in why and how it is presented. I suppose it's a matter of layers. This way of using hands and gestures, is part of how I express this interest.

© Lydia Panas, Silent Night, from the series "The Mark of Abel"

f: You acknowledge the camera directly in a number of your images in The Mark of Abel, working with tilt-shift and blurring of the bottom half of the image, allowing for the coverage to fall off, as well as tilting the camera frame. Talk us through your visual language decisions a little bit including why you have decided to work with the camera the way you have and how it impacts the message of the images.

LP: The pictures are representative of a truth that I see. I photograph to show myself how I saw something. It involves a great deal of subjectivity mixed with raw material, and becomes an interpretation. All photographs do this, and the stronger the subjectivity, the stronger the image, in my mind. The more an artist delivers his/her personal vision, history, pain, love, complexity, the stronger the work. I acknowledge the camera because it is there. My work is not a document, but an interpretation. I don't have a plan, and whatever I do regarding tilts and shifts happens spontaneously. I just keep moving things around until the image feels right. I like the 4x5 because it slows me down and makes me look very carefully. It is hard to be spontaneous with a view camera, and the angle of view stays pretty much in one place. This may account for why I use the tilts and shifts a bit as well. When I use a medium format camera, I work differently. I work more quickly, and I can change the camera angle easier.

© Lydia Panas, Coat, from the series "Fur and Skin"

f: How do you think that you have evolved and changed as a photographer between leaving graduate school and today? What are some of the important lessons you have learned that you might be willing to share with other photographers and students?

LP: The most important thing I have learned since graduate school is to trust myself. I had less confidence in those days and was easily dissuaded from something that I valued if someone said something negative. I have more of a sense when something is important to me now and if someone tells me they don't like it, I may reconsider the presentation, but I don't turn away from it. I keep working on it until I get it right. I found that whatever I need to make the work is already there, I just have to work with it until it's right. I have also learned a lot by watching my students work. If you give a student the right kind of encouragement, they will get it, maybe not at first, but eventually. I am very careful with student critiques. I give them feedback that keeps them going, not the kind that makes them doubt themselves.

f: I thought we could select two images and have you talk through the creation of them to illustrate your working process.

© Lydia Panas, Asha and Oksana W., from the series "The Mark of Abel"

LP: Sure.

The first image, "Asha and Oksana W." is one of the earliest images from the Abel series. I had just started to realize that shooting people together would be interesting so I asked my student, Asha (pink shirt) if she would participate. I asked her to bring her sister, of whom she spoke in class. Asha is from Poland and very much a family person. She talked about how important it was to her to have children. She also spoke lovingly of her younger sister, more like a mother figure than a sister. I was touched by her love and how much she cared. I had not met the sister before the shoot, and it was fun to see the similarities and differences. I have a number of images I could have used from this shoot, but I selected this one because it shows the younger sister's respect. Here Asha looks older and wiser and projects a kind of confidence and maturity. She understood her priorities, more than most college students her age. Asha is a musician and she was certain she wanted to pursue her music, but she also knew, deep down that a family was also a priority. She was serious and determined and knew what she wanted.

© Lydia Panas, Fish, from the series "Falling From Grace..."

"Fish" is from the Falling From Grace... series. This series came right after the Abel project. I wanted to challenge myself formally, as well as conceptually. So instead of groups, outside, with a large format camera, I shot inside the studio, with just one model.

I had to find a different way to create tension and I quickly found that by having the model hold a piece of food, I could create a tension between the three of us.

At first it was fairly simple. I bought a few things from the grocery store and sort of matched them to the model's hair and clothing. As I got more involved, I began to notice the subtleties of the model's reactions to what they were holding. I began to include unusual foods, messy maybe or less pleasant to hold. Nothing was forced upon the model, but it was always my selection. As time went on, I found that the choices, the selections, the decisions, became more nuanced. For instance, who could hold a piece of cake and squish it, with feeling. Or who could handle a squid? I always checked with the model before selecting something like that. There were vegetarians who did not want to be photographed with meat. There were young men who were perfectly fine holding a chicken or a fish. Color was significant, hair, clothing (I never know what someone is going to wear ahead of time), so I always had a selection of food. This young man holding the fish was un-phased. Close-up, you can see blood dripping down his hands. His brother is also part of the series, holding a salmon filet. Both are funny, boisterous, certainly not as serious and quiet as they look in this work. But they were very accommodating.

As the project progressed, the connections between the models and how the food was held, as well as the particulars of hair and clothing to the food, became more subtle. It was fun. I am interested in the contradictions the pairings convey, both dark and humorous.

f: Finally, what's next for you Lydia?

LP: I am doing something very different right now. I am photographing a series of fabrics in the landscape. The fabrics hang upright, one at a time, on a backdrop frame. I have been shooting them in winter weather, like fog, rain and ice. They are a project about the land my family lives on, and memories from the many years my husband and I spent with my father, planting thousands of trees a year. The pictures are not of the trees but of the memories that linger from all those years of hope, and how my father did not live to see the trees mature. I call them "Ghost Portraits."

© Lydia Panas, The Forgotten Years, from the series "The Mark of Abel"