David Seidner, Untitled Nude, © 1993.
The following excerpts about portraiture and the figure were taken from a recorded conversation between Louise Neri and David Seidner in preparation for a preface, written by Seidner, for his recently published book, Nudes (Gina Kehayoff Verlag).
Louise Neri We were talking the other day about investigating classical pose and contrapposto. What are you actually investigating?
David Seidner It’s not so much the contrapposto stance that fascinates me per se; it’s that in the history of art, it’s a cornerstone in representation: the first time the human figure was represented in a naturalistic state. When sculpture evolved from the static kouros to the more naturalistic Kritios Boy, the body shifted but the head stayed dead-on.
LN What has perplexed me about your work is its stasis, from the artists portraits to the frontal nudes—so stilling. As a viewer, you stop dead when you see them.
DS I’m drawn to that combination of naturalism and artificiality. My nudes are standing there, apparently at ease, fixing the viewer directly in the eye. In some way, it demystifies nudity, which I also wanted to do, because of the political climate right now, this terrible backlash. I think it’s time to take nudity and portray it as something very frank, easy, and natural.
LN These figures evoke life drawing, but live models would never have eye contact with the viewer.
DS I have been doing portraits since 1977. I had run through an entire Baroque lexicon: breaking down the portrait, fragmenting bodies, and doing multiple exposures. I finally came around to something that still invoked a fragment, but it was a fragment of a sculpture. I kept seeing Roman busts when I thought of portraiture, or rather portrait iconography. That idea of the portrait was most indelible in my mind. In those blank expressions of Roman busts, I always saw an incredible amount of pathos and emotion—the Zen idea that in blankness or nothingness there is everything.
David Seidner, Robert Rauschenberg, © 1992
LN It’s that process of emptying out. In the artist’s portraits, you evacuated the image in a disconcerting way.
DS I aim for a state of hypnosis, in which you fixate on a stationary object as you would in meditation. Blankness does come across their faces. But something else eventually is allowed to come through—a kind of truth. Because of that, I hope, they’re very poignant. I wouldn’t make a value judgment and say it’s more honest to do something non-expressive, but I think that because the medium is completely artificial, the less you do, the more you can convey.
LN Do you use chiaroscuro to that effect?
DS Yes, for no particular reason. It gives definition.
LN It’s very harsh.
DS Photography is about light. What better way to show light than through darkness? The opposition of dark and light…it’s that simple.
LN To me, it’s as if you’re showing structure rather than surface. What one remembers from these photographs is the structure of the face, not the humanizing detail.
DS Using chiaroscuro is a way of fragmenting the image without physically having to decompose it. In fact, the first portraits I did were completely half-light and half-dark. There wasn’t even an eye showing on the dark side of the face. Eventually I used the light to pick up the other eye so that there would be a fixed stare, and then I started throwing in other ways of lighting the dark side so that a silhouette could be discerned. After that, it seemed a natural progression to want to represent the entire figure.
LN The back views are perplexing. They look almost like stop-motion. There’s something very cinematographic about them.
DS I’m fascinated by the idea of people responding to familiar iconography—something that registers as “known” and comfortable. How to register that and be modern and personal and not nostalgic is very delicate. There was no conscious decision to translate classical sculpture photographically—it just happened, through a kind of aesthetic osmosis, and probably years of studying Greek art history. I understood the rapport after the fact. The search for the right moment, what the Greeks called Kairos, is timeless and universal.
The vision I’m trying to portray is idealized and very selective. It’s an archetype that may be more fascist than Jungian. But I’m trying to tick into an ideal beauty that is extremely classical. The artists of ancient Greece believed they could embellish nature through their work, whereas before, people thought they were imitating nature through formulaic equations. So I feel classicism is a step beyond, which to me is the great thing about art and how it represents the hope of the human spirit, the ingenuity of mankind. It is an embellishment of nature: taking nature and setting it apart, making you look at it in a different way. It’s very simplistic, very romantic, but it’s something which appeals to me.
LN You’re bringing empiricism into an aesthetic arena. The portraits are quite clinical.
DS You can attribute anything you want to the blankness. By the same token, those nudes may be more full of emotion than if I tried to portray something through them, which to me is such an obvious falsehood. In Buddhist thought, the divinities were human. All of the stories were about human beings, human virtue, and being as good as one can be. These are things that have preoccupied me, certainly over the past few years and maybe longer. In classicism also, the individual was finally portrayed, forever changing our perception of the figure from symbol to likeness. And that individual could be imbued with divine status.
David Seidner, Untitled Nude, © 1994.
LN How do you actually direct your subjects?
DS It’s a very personal method I’ve evolved. I hypnotize my sitters. I do that by giving them precise instruction, down to how they’re holding their fingers. Eventually they lose themselves, forget themselves. That’s what I mean by a certain reality coming through. I try to make them lose consciousness of the camera. They become so obsessed with putting all of the ingredients together: the movement of the head; the movement of the shoulders; the angle of the hips; the way the knee is; the way the foot is in relation to the other foot…that they become unaware, almost, of being photographed.
LN Everyone struggles not to give themselves up, not to reveal themselves.
DS There have been people I’ve photographed who were so essentially repressed, no matter what I did, they didn’t give themselves up, and those were not successful photographs.
LN You’re doing the opposite of what is usually done by not asking people to project.
DS I’m asking them to empty themselves. I ask people to concentrate on the blackness of the lens, to fix on that point and make an abstraction out of it.
LN So that’s your hypnosis method.
DS The sitting is almost like a mantra. The images on the contact sheets may look almost identical at first glance, but then you start to realize there are subtle variations. There is usually one image which is right—it captures that perfect moment. When it feels right, there’s something that’s inexplicable. It either happens or it doesn’t.