Article by Einar Falur Ingólfsson
Gary Schneider ? “Nudes”
“It begs interpretation from the viewer,” says the artist Gary Schneider (b. 1954) about his work. Certainly these unusual, life-sized photographs, whose subjects seemingly gaze out from within a black void, do seem to demand reaction and interpretation from the viewer.
Born in South Africa, Schneider has lived and worked in the United States for years. Since the early seventies, his subject of his photographic work has been genetics, bodies and faces; his own and those of other subjects. Over the last two decades he has developed a technique where he “paints” the sitter onto the film during very long exposures. The execution shows an affinity to performance artists such as Vito Acconci, who greatly influenced Schneider during his student years. Exhibiting the naked human body in its entirety, in works where subjects are translated onto film, was a big step for the artist.
Works from the “Nudes” series made quite an impression when they were first exhibited five years ago. A New York Times critic described them as “remarkable photographs” that “present a collective celebration of the human body” and showcase a vivid life-force triumphing over mortality.
In a way these pieces might be approached as either painting or photography, as the film records what the artist slowly illuminates, allowing light to paint the subject onto film. The subject lies on a black cloth on the floor of a darkened studio. The camera lens remains open for up to an hour, during which time Schneider illuminates the body with a small flashlight. He starts with the right side of the face and slowly moves down that side of the body. He then works his way up the left side of the body, finally reaching the left side of the face. He has, over a long period, developed a sense for the volume of light needed to sufficiently expose each body part. While painting the subject onto the 8x10-inch sheet of film, he controls the light volume with the flashlight by counting out loud during the entire time. If one body part is illuminated longer than others, that part comes out brighter in the image. The artist has described this long illumination process as a kind of performance, or meditation, where life, manifested as light, caresses the subject while the artist counts aloud. An intimate act, says Schneider; calm, warm and “somewhat sexual”.
All subjects are photographed in the same position in Schneider’s nudes, with hands on hips and looking straight into camera. In each image, an interesting change occurs in the subject’s gaze. The right eye looks determinately at the world while the left seems to focus inward in a meditative, vulnerable or even sentimental manner. This effect is caused by the hour that lapses between capturing the right versus the left eye on film. In that interval, time has passed and the subject has relaxed. The model has evolved as a person since the beginning of the process, has grown older and acquired a new experience through collaboration with the artist. This is not traditional photography, where, in a fraction of a second, a moment is captured and preserved. This is time, embodied by light caressing flesh and forms.
Schneider’s work undeniably references the painting tradition; however, the artist himself maintains that the comparison is erroneous even though the technique may evoke painting. He prefers to identify with pioneers in the field of portraiture, especially British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879). Her portraits of friends and family are considered unique in the history of photography. Schneider points out that Cameron exposed each of her expressive portraits for up to eight minutes. The long process breaks down walls and unmasks the subject who is observed as he or she truly was, by way of the artist’s interpretation. Schneider is fascinated by this approach. He works intimately with the subjects of his photographs, aiming to reveal something about each person which could be called his or her true personality—a true visage stripped of all defences.
When contemplating the nudes in Gary Schneider’s work, the viewer’s mind is likely to turn to thoughts of life and death. Nudity exposes all. When clothing, which through fashion evokes a sense of time, is removed, the body becomes a symbol of everyman, of humanity and life itself—not unlike what we observe in the work of Icelandic painter Helgi Þorgils Friðjónsson. The uneven illumination of the skin recalls death and decay and the subject’s position is reminiscent of a body in a coffin. Adding to this impression is an apparent weightlessness; the subjects seem to float in a black void. While the subjects are photographed lying down, the prints are exhibited in an upright position, face to face with the viewer. This causes an unusual distortion in the forms, making the flesh appear free from the constraints of gravity. The subjects are made to hover in front of us, looking at us but at the same time gazing inwards, cryptic and defiant. During the long period of exposure a foetus can be seen to move in the womb, a man’s penis becomes erect. We compare faces, hair, skin colour, physique; are given a rare opportunity to observe the human body as it truly is, without embellishment, according to the artist’s interpretation.
Such nakedness can certainly be uncomfortable to the viewer who has no choice but to acknowledge that this is humanity exposed. These are images of people like us; thus we enter the world and thus we leave it.
Einar Falur Ingólfsson