Neal Slavin is a world class photographer and film director. His well known photographic books include Portugal, When Two Or More Are Gathered Together, and Britons. He has produced and directed countless TV commercials through his own production company, Slavin-Schaffer Films. In addition Slavin’s feature films include FOCUS; written by Arthur Miller, which stars William H. Macy and Laura Dern and features Meatloaf and David Paymer. Slavin’s photographs are extensively represented in both private and public collections worldwide. Neal Slavin shows in both individual and group venues throughout the world and is represented by Ricco Maresca Gallery in New York for both sales and exhibitions. His work has been featured in the solo exhibition at New York’s International Center of Photography and England’s National Museum of Photography, Film & Television. He has also been honored with a retrospective exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and has been shown at the famous Les Rencontres D’Arles in France. He is currently preparing work for a large solo exhibition at Foto/Industria 2 in Bologna in October 2015. Slavin’s teaching credentials include classes and workshops at Les Recontres d’Arles in Provence, The Cooper Union, Manhattanville College, The School of Visual Arts (SVA), The City University of New York at Queens College as well as serving as a visiting artist at the Art Institute of Chicago. He is currently teaching a special combined class for Pace University and the International Center of Photography at his studio in New York City where he also gives private workshops. Slavin is currently working on a book of new photographs and a film entitled The Faith Project.
Sometime around 1972 I came across a panoramic group portrait of a Boy Scout troop at summer camp. The photograph mesmerized me. I recall studying their faces, their body language, who were the clowns and who were the serious kids. They came together for an instant in time, which then vanished forever. The only thing left was that image made indelible by its attention to sharp detail and environment.
My first foray into this new found territory was to photograph a group called The Flushing Volunteer Ambulance Corps. I’d need to pose the drivers and nurses in front of their building with their two ambulances, along with the trophies they won in ambulance racing competitions. With the light shining into the lens of my 4 x 5 camera I took a sun-drenched, mood-filled portrait of the group. I shot it in both black and white and color because I didn’t know which would be better. When I looked at my results, I saw it – or didn’t see it. The gold and silver trophies were indistinguishable in B&W, while in color the differences were apparent. I knew I had come upon a new way to see color as information instead of prettiness.
The early 1970s were a time when color was not acceptable as a serious form of photography. If you wanted to make art you had to work in B&W. Nonetheless, a handful of us were working in color, each on his/her own, defying the rules long before color became an acceptable form of artistic photography. I like to think we were pioneers in a new medium.
A colleague and friend recently remarked to me that the reason there are not so many Group Portraitists was because “It was so damned hard to do” at which point he asked me “How do you do it?” The answer is you need to be a kind of Master of Ceremonies, a director of large productions and a person who loves people while taking on a challenge. It’s like preparing a banquet and having all the food ready at the same time.
My work examines people’s public persona as opposed to their private nature. While preparing a photograph I am fascinated to watch which people jockey for position; a shoulder in front of the next person, a bigger smile or a bigger frown will often steal the show as seen in my Group Portrait called The Lloyd Rod & Gun Club, or the young woman exposing her breast in Society for Photographic Education. On the other hand there are people who purposefully recede from the camera’s eye – who are posing only because they are part of the club, such as the person whose head is hidden in The Tattoo Club of Great Britain. My role is to make the image whole by incorporating all these bits of human behavior – not directed by me but done naturally by people’s innate personalities.
I find this concept also works to bring out similar qualities in my individual portraiture. Rei Kawakubo’s stoic attitude, Peter Ustinov’s playfulness, and Arthur Miller’s strength all rise to the surface only from this interaction between photographer and subject.
My current project looks at people coming together with their peers in both prayer and camaraderie. I find that these hands-off methods result in unique and revealing group portraits as well. I don’t pose anyone in these pictures. I light the room and pick the angle that will work best for the photograph but I never tamper with the arrangement of the people or how or when they pray, as in the photo Chabad Rebbe.
There continues to be so much sociological and aesthetic work to be done in the group / individual portrait discipline that I will be exploring these areas for a long time to come!
AB : Why do you think the art world was so reticent to accept color photography as serious Fine Art?
NS : I don’t think that they were reticent; I think there were two other factors. I have said before, in regard to my work, you need color to describe the information. And you know I’m not sure – don’t quote me on this – but I think it was Cartier Bresson who said this: color gives too much information. Now, that’s crazy when you think about it, but if the palette of black and white was a thousand shades of grey, color had a million shades. And that’s a lot of information to deal with. And I think people were a little bit frightened of dealing with all of this stuff – how do you control it? It’s jumping all over the place! And it’s harder to do in color also because you’re trying to mimic the color world out there. Black and white is much easier. Not that making a great black and white photograph is easy, but its handling easier than this sudden sweep of a million million colors – how do you handle that? And I think the art world was not ready for it. There was another reason, which was that photographers didn’t want to seem like painters.
AB : Is there any one curator or critic with whom you associate the breaking down of that resistance? Or a champion of color photography as art who was willing to pioneer with you?
NS : I didn’t know anybody at the time that was working in color. People think there was this movement; there was no movement. There were about six or seven of us – some of the people I knew, others I didn’t – and we all started working for our own reasons in color. It was just time. I just went headlong into this project photographing groups. Also, this was a time where there were very few galleries; it wasn’t anything like it is today. Very few galleries were dealing with photography; there was nothing out there, so there were very few critics. There was one guy who wrote two articles – New Frontiers in Color for Newsweek magazine, and Ten Toughest Photographs of 1975 for Esquire magazine. His name is Doug Davis, and they’re very good articles because they give you a sense of what the times were like, it puts you right back into the creative, when we were working. The reason I suggest these article is because nobody was really writing about photography at the time, it was a very budding art form. The old stupid argument was still going on at the time, ‘is photography art?’ You know it’s the dumbest conversation I have ever entertained but it was real. People would say, ‘this is not art.’ It was crazy.
AB : Your Prayer series is a massive departure from the posed group portraits for which you are so well known. In your posed portraits, the intense power of a group gaze – whether it is a group of six or a hundred people – is undeniable, and the presence of yourself as the photographer as well as the presence of the viewer just behind the frame, are palpable and add significant elements to the image. However, in your Prayer series, the groups are un-posed, and their natural patterns and visual rhythms are undisturbed. Why did you decide to lessen your involvement in these specific groups, and how do you believe this alters the impact of the image?
NS : Why did you decide to lessen your involvement – now that’s the key to that whole question. My involvement, if anything, is more than in the groups. Now let me back up because it’s an interesting point. I could have gone on with group portraiture as I knew it forever, but it started because I was at some ritual and I thought, ‘this is incredible!’ The throe of the the ritual was visually incredible and from there I built on that and I thought I have to photograph this. The learning curve was incredibly difficult; it was a long learning curve and then finally out popped the first baby, so to speak. We finally had a picture that really worked. Now, I put if anything more work into these pictures than I did in the others. In the posing of the earlier work, that’s not particularly my work. One rule I had, and I still have it, is those groups have a demographic and a societal relationship where certain members are more important; there’s a hierarchy – the politics of the organizations, I had nothing to say about that. So what I would do is say, ‘ok you’re into the photograph, we’re gonna do it, let me suggest a few possibilities of where I think we could make a good photograph. It’s just so simple, and sometimes I would say, ‘why don’t you arrange yourself as you imagine you should be,’ and they would do that. So it was based on the social and the political wellbeing of the group. I wanted the verity of these people to remain true. Even if you didn’t understand it, as a document it needed to be that way.
Now, come full circle so to speak and suddenly I’m in a situation where I cannot organize anybody. The only thing that’s similar is that I pick the angle that I think is going to work best. Then I go ahead and light the room to be able to see people. It behooves me to really work on the lighting of it so that we get good resolution, good shutter speed, to make those images sharp because its all about the details and the faces in these pictures. Now, when I would take a group portrait, I would kind of wait until they were laughing or crying or whatever, and then snap the picture. I’m really doing the same thing here only now they aren’t looking at the camera. Now is that a group portrait? Well, in some ways I don’t care anymore because it’s a portrait and it’s a portrait of people doing what is a very intense personal thing, together – en masse. My job – and this is where it really is difficult – when I have a group in front of me it’s much easier. I say, ‘ok this is great, you wanna laugh or smile or whatever,’ and I could get like 20-25 images of that group. Of different postures, different attitudes, different presentations. When I’m in one of these ritualistic situations I’m like a fly on the wall. You can’t talk to me, I am intense – watching for that moment when these people reach a point –and hopefully they do – where they get what they came for, which is a kind of transcendent moment. That moment you might even call (it sounds silly) but rapture. They’re looking for something; I’m looking to document their something. I’m so focused on these people and as soon as I feel it – I don’t see it, I feel it – I press the shutter. And I get far fewer pictures. And I mean, I could shoot like 10-15 pictures and out of it probably get two, hopefully three images. Sometimes only one. Its much more difficult to get to that pregnant moment.
AB : Also in regard to the Prayer series, was your interest in photographing groups of a highly religious nature received differently as opposed to a fireman’s group or Lawn Bowls club?
NS : Well first off the project is not yet finished. So it is premature to see what people’s responses will be to this new work. Only a handful of people have seen it and the response has been very positive. But in truth the series will have to be seen in total (approximately 30 to 35 pictures). Will the public respond in the same way as to my earlier work? I doubt it. The quirkiness and humor are gone in most cases but in place of that is a true sense of the awe of transcendence and what I would call, ‘people in a state of rapture’. That is very powerful stuff and it will certainly be interesting to see how it all plays out.
AB : You mention that public personas can often ‘steal the show’ in your group portraits. Have you ever experienced someone so prominent or self-important, so much the class clown, that you felt the need to intervene?
NS : I think the group and peer pressure keeps that kind of behavior in check. What I’m talking about is that the quirks and humor in my work come in small moments within each picture – almost like details that you have to look for; it’s only then that you begin to see how one person will emerge in front of another and steal the viewer’s attention or a different person will recede somewhat out of visibility.
AB : You have spoken about the search for identity within the group – has there ever been a group in which you discovered a previously unknown part of your own identity?
NS : I have photographed thousands of people; good, bad, nice, mean, tall, short, funny and serious. I love them all – their plight is my plight. That has never wavered in the fifty some odd years that I’ve been photographing. To answer your question it was never about discovering a previously unknown part of my identity – it was always about reinforcing it.
To view more of Neal’s work, please visit his website.
To view more of Neal Slavin’s work, please visit his website.