A fire burnt Valery Vrady’s art studio to the ground in April, 1995. While Valery himself was not physically injured, about 2000 of his paintings and drawings were destroyed in the blaze. Nearly his entire collection of work, thirty years in the making, was gone. I can only imagine how heartbroken he must have been. If I lost all my hard drives, along with whatever photos I had stored on the internet, I’d weep: and not a cool movie cry where my eyes would well up and a single tear would roll slowly down my cheek, glistening in the sun. I’m talking heaving sobs, ugly face contortions, and slobber and snot galore. I’m not sure how long it would take me to pick up my camera again. There’s a chance that it would be a while. I hope I never have to find out. After the fire, Valery wasted little time before picking up a brush and getting back to work. Two decades later, I arrived at a charity event hosted at his combined studio and home in central Moscow, unaware of the fire or even who Valery Vrady was.
This beautifully aged structure was quite possibly the coolest building I’ve ever been in: it felt like the offspring of an art museum, a vintage boutique, and a haunted house. Every available surface was a visual cornucopia, covered with his incredible paintings, drawings, installation art, and other work, as well as an enormous collection of beautiful, weird, and beautifully weird objects that, as far as I could tell, might have been either knickknacks or priceless antiques. To me, it didn’t matter: they were all wonderful. The combined effect of all of these individual pieces made the house into an incredible work of art in its own right. As soon as I saw the framed copy of the shyly smiling Mona Lisa juxtaposed with the two mannequins touching hands just outside the front door, I knew that I needed to make a photographic portrait of whoever had designed this place. Thankfully I had brought a bag with some photo gear with me, as my girlfriend had already arrived earlier and assured me that I would regret not bringing my camera along.
Later, while standing in a crowd of people encircling Valery on the third floor of his house, I was surveying the room and trying to figure out my plan for his portrait. I hadn’t actually asked him yet, and he was clearly busy at the moment, but whenever I got my chance, I wanted to be ready. Hearing my name called out shook me out of my daze. There was a raffle going on and I had won a print of one of Valery’s paintings. I went over receive my prize, shook his hand, and was caught off-guard by the size of his hands and the restrained strength evident in his grip. This soft-spoken, silver-haired man probably could have crushed my hand if he’d wanted to. Valery promised to sign the print later in the evening. As excited as I was to win a signed copy of one of his works, I was also pleased to have been given a pretty clear opportunity to ask him if he would be willing to have his photo taken. There were still other prizes to be awarded and lots of people wanted to talk with him, so I just hung around for a while, going back to planning in my head how to approach the photo.
While chatting with my friend Anna, one of the organizers of the event, she told me about the fire, and I marveled at the determination and resilience of someone who saw his life’s work literally reduced to ashes, and then built it all up again from scratch. I also couldn’t help but wonder if the disaster was somewhat related to the smoking pipe that never seemed to leave Valery’s hand, but I discovered later that an electrical fire was the cause. Regardless, I decided that he should definitely be smoking when the time came to photograph him. Once I had planned out as much as I could without my subject actually being in position in front of me, I got lost in thought, considering photography’s place in the art world, as I stood there completely surrounded by the work of a master. I have an enormous amount of respect for people like Valery who are skilled at painting and drawing (not to mention his installation art), and the prospect of trying to photograph a person who could capture the essence of someone or something in a two dimensional space without the aid of a camera was both an intimidating and enticing challenge: a portrait of a portraitist.
The line between photograph and illustration is less clear than it used to be (take for example the awesome stop-motion work done by none other than my lovely significant other Tanya), but I still find it interesting to compare their differences. In one sense, someone who illustrates with pencil, chalk, or paint obviously has a much more difficult task than I do. To capture a face or a complex pattern with a pencil or a brush realistically is much more difficult than clicking the shutter on a camera. The truth is there are a lot more people who can manage taking a decent photo of somebody than there are people who can sketch a convincing likeness on paper or canvas. If I had the option of getting my portrait done by either the world’s best painter or the world’s best photographer, I’d probably still choose the photographer (to try and learn from him or her), but I suspect most people would choose to be painted.
On the other hand, photography has its own challenges. Modern viewers rarely demand that a work of art done with pencils, chalk or paint conform exactly to reality, often expecting and wanting each artist to create a unique vision, filtered through the way his or her eyes see the world. Photography certainly had a hand in pushing the art world away from realism, but even for photographs than delve into surrealism, blurring the line between capturing and rendering, there is a threshold that, if breached, inclines the viewer’s mind to immediately scream “Fake!” and dismiss it, whereas painters have much more freedom to express what they want to say… provided, of course, that they possess the ability to create it.
A painter and a photographer both choose what to include and what to exclude in the frame. For a painter, the exclusion is easier than the inclusion. For a photographer, it’s often the other way around. If there is something unnecessary or unwanted in the background of a scene, a painter simply doesn’t paint it. A photographer has to shift angles, blur it out with distance and a fast lens, change the lighting, and/or edit it out in post-production, which, in spite of the power of today’s image editing software and people’s understandable perceptions, is rarely easy to do well.
As a photographer, your experience, preparation, knowledge, vision, connection with the subject, gear, and whatever else you bring to the table can all take years to build and longer to master, but it all gets regularly and repeated focused on a single moment; often a tiny fraction of a second. If you miss your chance, maybe… maybe you can take another frame and make the magic reappear, but sometimes it’s just gone: that priceless expression; that perfect beam of light shining through a window; that telling gesture; that shared laugh between old friends; that first kiss of a bride and groom at the altar; that amazing catch; that brief span of time when city lights have finally come on but the twilight sky still has some blue in it; that instant the walls of a subject’s self-consciousness and shyness come down and the true self is finally revealed. A skilled illustrator can preserve these images in his or her mind and recreate them at will.
I want to emphasize that I am not, in any way, trying to diminish the significant talent, skill, experience, training, and work ethic it takes to be a good illustrator. I have nothing but respect and awe for people who can create moving art through the deceptively simple act of carefully and meticulously applying one kind of material (paint, chalk, graphite, charcoal, etc.) to another (paper, canvas, walls, objects, etc.). All artists, whether their tool of choice is a brush, a pencil, a camera, a chisel, a musical instrument, a voice, a kitchen, or a computer keyboard, are a part of the same team and share a common goal: to create something that moves the viewer, that makes an impression and forces them to think and feel.
I do, however, feel that sometimes people overlook the effort and skill it takes to create good photography. Most of us carry cameras with us in our pockets all the time and are perfectly happy with the pics we snap. After all, how hard is it, really, to take a fancy machine, point it at stuff, and click a button? To quote Larry (Chris Elliot) from the movie Groundhog Day, “It’s a heck of a lot more complicated than that!”
I suspect that all artists sometimes feel that their particular craft is misunderstood or underappreciated. Time and time again, I find that when I learn more about a skill or a job, I always discover that there are countless difficulties and subtle nuances involved in doing it well: things that I had not considered or given a second thought to prior to investigating it. So I shouldn’t really blame anyone for thinking that there isn’t that much involved in photography besides buying an expensive SLR, but there’s a part of me that still cringes inside when someone looks at a photo I took and says, “Wow, you must have a really good camera!” I’ll bet nobody looks at one of Valery’s paintings and tells him, “Wow, you must have a really good brush!” Okay so… enough of my whining and artsy-fartsy talk.
Eventually the crowd started to thin out and Valery signed my print and graciously agreed to sit for a portrait. So there I was, with a willing, fascinating subject with character and presence placed in a remarkably unique, relevant, and visually intriguing environment. If I couldn’t cook up something interesting, I’d have only myself to blame. Time to pick up my camera and get back to work…
Stay tuned for Part II of this post, which will describe the actual technical process of creating this photo in detail: composition, choice of lens and backdrop, lighting, and post-production. I’ll add the link here when it’s finished, as well as on my Facebook photography page. In the meantime, check out Valery’s amazing work and visit him on Facebook. Many thanks to Valery, Anna, Lora and of course my lovely girlfriend (and photo assistant) Tanya!