authors and artists

Mystery writer portraits, New England chapter

Photographing mystery writers is an absolute delight; I get a little tingle of happiness when I'm contacted by an author who delves into the deep dark depths of the human psyche to create their stories. Recently, I photographed Ray Daniel and Anne Macdonald, both wonderful writers and human beings, who are members - and in the case of Ray, the president - of the New England Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, New England chapter.

When photographing a writer of this type, I try to avoid the obvious cliches, but infuse a subtle tinge of drama and gravitas through lighting and positioning. The goal is to create an author photo for book jacket and publicity use that tells a visual story about both the book and author in a beautiful manner, inviting their readers to get to know both them, and their books, better.

Shalon interview featuring artist Bradford Johnson: part of the independent creatives series

Image by Sharona Jacobs.

Image by Sharona Jacobs.

Last spring, I posted about the Shalon, a cross-collaborative professional creative group formed between myself, an author, an artist, and a filmmaker (we just added a mosaicist/educator as well, but more on that soon!). Inspired by the concept of 18th century French salons, we meet monthly to discuss our goals, be accountable to one another, and brainstorm ideas. The three menfolk of our group suggested the name based on the first three letters of my name. 

Being an independent creative professional can challenge the most stalwart of creative souls, and this group helps keep all of us focused and productive, both creatively and from a business standpoint. I hope that this, and future interviews with fellow independent creatives will inspire and support those of us making a living with our art. In that initial post, I mentioned that I'd be focusing on the Shalon-ers individually so you can learn a little more about them and their work. 

For this post, I interviewed our resident artist, Bradford Johnson. Brad has been painting now for nearly three decades and exhibited extensively in solo and group exhibitions—garnering acknowledgements and awards from such prestigious organizations as the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and Yaddo and MacDowell Artist Colonies. Throughout this time he has focused on “first-level” questions: who are we, where do we come from, why are we here, what has gone wrong, where are we going? In his work there is often an element of immanent danger and potential or actual disaster. Images of wrecked ships, airplanes, and balloons alongside ordinary human activities; indicators of aspiration and failure, calamity and hope — overlaid with time and memory. Without further ado, let's talk to Brad about his work (all images of artwork are courtesy of Bradford Johnson).

Sharona: Hi Brad, and thanks so much for speaking to us about you and your work! Could you tell us a little bit about what drives you as an artist?

Brad: I'm fascinated with the boundaries between photography and painting. I delight in criss crossing the line between both -  embedding objective photographic backstories with the subjective painting process. Even during the formative training as an artist at The Rhode Island School of Design to my MFA at Hunter College, NYC, I was captivated with memory and the past in visual terms. This was central in my show at the UniLu Gallery in Cambridge MA, Spaces Between the Splendor- Painting Encounter and Conquest.

SJ: How did you first venture into the art world?

Brad: I came to art making sometime late in high school - my application to the Rhode Island School of Design a kind of afterthought amid other liberal art colleges. When I was accepted there I (naively) took this a confirmation of an artistic path. This unexpected stroke of luck or grace was the gate through which I found a vocational calling.

SJ: It's true, luck can certainly change an artist's course, both for good and the difficult! What are the greatest challenges in your work, and what helps you overcome them?

Brad: I think it's particularly hard to hold on the value of myself or my work consistently. There are plenty of metrics in the world that diminish livelong pursuit of painting (or any creative path). Painting can be isolating. There are many moments of self doubt. The only way through these periods is through community and connection. It can also be helpful to muster a determination to keep throwing any shit at the walls until something sticks. 

SJ: Absolutely! Persistence is underrated as a vital commodity in an artist's survival and success. Speaking of success, whose work do you most admire or influences you?

Brad: An early guiding light for me was the quirky painter A.P Ryder and some of his obsessive gritty mysterious paintings. Later Robert Rauchenburg offered a way to work with photographic images that was liberating. I also lean pretty heavily on musicians like, Bruce Cockburn, Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and Nick Cave as inspiration.

SJ: Sounds like you like to draw from multiple artistic disciplines to create your work, much like we at the Shalon like to support each others' work though we each create with different media. How is the Shalon, or meeting within other creative professional groups, helpful to you?

Brad: The Shalon has been a lifeline of artistic and personal accountability. This group of friends are a remarkably undefended fellow creatives who generously share the burdens and joys of the artistic road.

Portraits of Harvard's Adam Sandel, philosopher and scion, for Filosofie Magazine. Cambridge, MA.

A Netherlands-based publication, Filosofie, entirely dedicated to philosophers, recently contacted me to photograph Adam Sandel, PhD, a Harvard lecturer in social studies and rising star in the philosophy world. The art director of Filosofie was looking for portraits for an interview-based article for their November edition of the magazine, and gave me a lot of creative freedom to create a several images that highlighted this young professor whose new book was shortly to be released in Europe.

Sandel, son of noted philosopher Michael Sandel, also of Harvard, was a joy to photograph. Filosfie's interviewer was running a bit late, so I photographed a bit of the interview while I waited. 

Adam Sandel interview with Filosofie Magazine. Cambridge, MA.

Once the interview was complete, I shot Adam both indoors and outdoors on campus, using several different lighting techniques, first in the ambient light, and then shooting to create a virtual night in order to separate Adam from the background.

Adam was infinitely patient as I tinkered around with several lighting set-ups (my assistant's car sadly broke down in one of Boston's innumerable tunnels, so I was flying solo). Adam beautifully coped with me dragging him to different setups, turning and twisting him around, with a lovely personable sense of humor and a quiet thoughtfulness as he answered my questions and quickly adapted to each physical and lighting environment. A lovely afternoon all around, and I even finished on time for him to make a family dinner!

BNY Mellon | PFLAG Pride Portrait Project

Last week, I blogged about Manuel and Joe, two men I photographed for BNY Mellon and PFLAG, to showcase portraits of members of the LGBTQ community in order to raise awareness about Pride Month. Peter Tenggren, my contact at BNY Mellon who asked me to create this small group of work, sent me the below picture of the portraits, (printed by Bob Korn Imaging) now settled in the first of its four traveling stops throughout the Boston area for the month of June. I thought I'd share with you all the images, and very importantly, the words behind each person photographed, below.

 

The Pride Project
Artist’s Statement

I’m delighted to work with BNY Mellon and PFLAG, as a proud ally, to present this collection of five portraits of vibrant members of the LGBT community in honor of Pride Month. With each photograph, I worked to display the humanity, warmth, and intelligence of the person pictured; to show both their inner world as well as to document each person’s features, relationships, and character. Part of the process to create these images was to get to know what was important to each person, and to create a safe and warm environment so that each man and woman pictured would feel at ease to truly be themselves. My goal with each person photographed was to foster a genuine friendship and alliance enabling the viewer of the portrait to feel as though they had somehow already known the person in the photograph. As a portrait photographer, storyteller, and former psychotherapist, it is vital to me that each portrait creates a narrative and sense of recognition between the viewer and the viewed.

- Sharona Jacobs, June 4, 2015 www.sharonaphoto.com

Sharona Jacobs
The Pride Project
Amy and Lori, 2012
Archival Digital Pigment Print
20 x 30 inches

Amy:

“This portrait was taken hours before I married my best friend. It was amazing to have one of the best days of my life documented in such intimate and lovely detail. To me Pride is confidently walking down the street, holding hands with my wife while pushing our 18-month-old twins in their stroller. In the past 20 years my Prideful life has shifted from bar-fueled weekends to Saturday Gymboree outings. What hasn’t changed is me going about my out life in the most honest way possible.”

Lori:

"Pride is raising our children to know that Different doesn't mean Lesser. Differences are a good thing and we should always try to embrace what is different about ourselves and others. Our family might look a little different to some people, but it is full of love and laughter and both the family we were born with AND the family we chose." 

Sharona Jacobs
The Pride Project
Mark, 2012
Archival Digital Pigment Print
20 x 30 inches

This portrait of Mark was taken the day Lori and Amy were married, and he and his partner hosted their celebration. Amy: "There’s the family you’re born with and the family you choose. Our chosen family includes two of the kindest, most generous people on the planet who opened their home to host our fabulous wedding.”

Sharona Jacobs
The Pride Project
Robin Lippincott, 2015
Archival Digital Pigment Print
20 x 27.4 inches

Robin: "I am a writer of literary fiction and nonfiction. I have two books coming out: Blue Territory: A Mediation on the Life and Work of Joan Mitchell (November 2015), and Rufus + Syd, a young adult novel co-written with Julia Watts (Spring 2016). I am also the author of the novels In the Meantime, Our Arcadia, and Mr. Dalloway, and the short story collection The 'I' Rejected. My fiction/nonfiction has appeared in over 30 journals, including "The Paris Review," "American Short Fiction," "Fence," "Memorious," "The Literary Review," "The New York Times Book Review," and others. I teach in the low-residency MFA Program at Spalding University. Simply put, pride means having the self-respect to be fully myself.”

Manuel and Joseph, Pride Portrait Project, BNY Mellon and PFLAG
Manuel and Joseph, Pride Portrait Project, BNY Mellon and PFLAG

Sharona Jacobs
The Pride Project
Manuel and Joseph, 2015
Archival Digital Pigment Print
20 x 26.5 inches

Manuel: "We are constantly making each other laugh. A common scene would include me talking about my day, but in Sofia Vergara's voice, followed by Joe bursting out laughing with his eyes shut, probably thinking to himself, "I hope this is only part of today's show, and not what I actually signed up for!" The roles reverse when Joe starts walking around the kitchen imitating a praying mantis while re-enacting a scene from Isabella Rossellini’s, "Green Porno" (which we went to see on our first Valentine). But life is not all about laughter and smiles. With our highly sensitive and introspective personalities, we often find ourseleves having to support and uplift each other, especially after reading one article too many about some form of injustice in the world. In this higly curated society driven by selfies and social media, we are proud to show all sides of our love, from laughter to tears. And as Milennials, we are thankful that we can safely show this connection outside of our private spaces (even if Joe sometimes shrugs off one too many of my PDAs)."

Sharona Jacobs
The Pride Project Joseph, 2012
Archival Digital Pigment Print
20 x 30 inches

Joe: "I have an innate fear of photographs. Perhaps it's from a youth deeply concerned with judgement and being misunderstood. Or perhaps it's because I've spent my life seeking out difference and broadening my knowledge, skills, experiences, and connections into the multi-faceted person I am today; I feared a portrait could not distill this. Yet Pride, for me, is an inversion of that fear. It is acceptance, celebration, and love for the diversity both within and outside ourselves. And it is in this light that I couldn't be more proud to show--at least an aspect of--our selves and our love.”

Shalon interview featuring author Robin Lippincott: part of the independent creatives series

A few months ago, I posted about the Shalon, a cross-collaborative professional creative group formed between myself, an author, an artist, and a filmmaker. Inspired by the concept of 18th century French salons, we decided to meet monthly to discuss our goals, be accountable to one another, and brainstorm ideas. The three menfolk of our group suggested the name based on the first three letters of my name. Being an independent creative professional can challenge the most stalwart of creative souls, and this group helps keep all of us focused and productive, both creatively and from the business standpoint. I hope that this, and future interviews with fellow independent creatives will inspire and support those of us making a living with our art. In that initial post, I mentioned that I'd be focusing on the Shalon-ers individually so you can learn a little more about them and their work. This week, I interviewed our resident writer, Robin Lippincott, the author of the novels "In the Meantime", "Our Arcadia", and "Mr. Dalloway", among many other published works.

Robin Shalon-7120
Robin Lippincott, photographed at Mt. Auburn Cemetery
Robin Lippincott, photographed at Mt. Auburn Cemetery

Sharona:

Hi Robin, and thanks so much for speaking to us about you and your work. Could you tell us a little bit about you and your work?

Robin: I am a writer of literary fiction and nonfiction. I have two books coming out: Blue Territory: A Mediation on the Life and Work of Joan Mitchell (November 2015), and Rufus + Syd, a young adult novel co-written with Julia Watts (Spring 2016). I am also the author of the novels In the Meantime, Our Arcadia, and Mr. Dalloway, and the short story collection, The 'I' Rejected. My fiction/nonfiction has appeared in over 30 journals, including "The Paris Review," "American Short Fiction," "Fence," "Memorious," "The Literary Review," "The New York Times Book Review," and others. I teach in the low-residency MFA Program at Spalding University, and am also an avid film/museum/gallery goer, as well as a frequent walker in the city.

Sharona: How did you first venture into writing?

Robin: I first got into writing as a result of grief, not death but loss, as has been true for so many writers—one long, hot, long ago summer in Central Florida, where I grew up. Van Gogh's letters to his brother, collected in Dear Theo, and Anne Frank's Diary, were seminal aspects of my aesthetic and moral education that summer.

Sharona: 

What are the greatest challenges in your work, and what helps you overcome them?

Robin: The greatest challenge in the work itself is simply getting it right, and in creating something that's beautiful and true. And then there are the challenges that occur at the intersection of art and commerce, at which there's most always a collision: sometimes it's only a bump or a scratch or a dent; at other times the vehicle is totaled. In both cases, you've just got to keep at it, teeth (sometimes) gritted.

Sharona: Whose work do you admire or influences you?

Robin: The list is long. I consider Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence as my literary parents, with Emily Dickinson as a great aunt, and from there it's largely the great minds and/or stylists (the writer's writers), as well as a few Southern writers, whom I most admire. Here's a shortlist:  Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, John Berger, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, James Baldwin, Elizabeth Hardwick, James Salter, Grace Paley, James Schuyler, Toni Morrison, Renata Adler, Michael Ondaatje, W. G. Sebald, Anne Carson....

Sharona: 

How is the Shalon, or meeting in other creative professional groups, helpful to you?

Robin: The Shalon is invaluable to me for several reasons. First, I believe the artistic pursuit (and the life that goes with that) is best and perhaps only really understood by other artists; in my experience, non-artists just don't/can't fully get it. And so I receive meaningful emotional support, both generally and also specifically. And I also get ideas and inspiration, and stimulation, as well as direct, inside exposure to the work of artists working in other art forms.

Robin Lippincott, photographed at Mt. Auburn Cemetery
Robin Lippincott, photographed at Mt. Auburn Cemetery

Jane Attanucci, poet

Jane recently came to me because her first book of poetry was about to be published by Finishing Line Press, and she was looking for a book jacket photo that represented both her and her work.

Jane Attanucci blog-1245
2015-03-19_0004

She explained that she was looking for a quiet, contemplative image that would accurately represent her keen mind and curiosity, as well as the warmth of her personality. I learned that we both enjoy photographs that showcase honest, "in between" moments, conveying thoughtfulness and a investigative process, so her images needed to capture that sensibility. In addition to writing poetry, Jane has been a professor of psychology and department chair for many years, and meeting her and getting to chat with her was such a treat for me - I always relish the opportunity to chat with those who worked in psychology, as I did for several years.

To suit Jane, I shot against a lighter neutral background, and bounced light to create a delicacy and softness to her imagery. She has incredible green eyes, and we chose an outfit in a mossy green both to highlight her features, as well as to pull in the earthy quality of her new book, "First Mud."

Her book is available now through Finishing Line Press.

The faceless portrait: author, illustrator, and sculptor Adam J. B. Lane

When I interview artists and authors before I photograph their portraits, the first question I ask is whether the person I'm photographing has any special requests, ideas, or preferences, far before I take out my camera. Children's book author/illustrator/sculptor (narrowing this fellow into a category is a challenging task) Adam J. B. Lane's request was a creative stretch for this portrait photographer: he asked if I could take his photograph without the viewer really knowing what he looked like, so that he could be passed by unrecognized by someone seeing his portrait the moment before.

Curious, I asked why. Adam said he was influenced both by the legendary radio producer Ira Glass and also the author Daniel Handler ("Lemony Snicket") who felt that viewing the physical appearance of a formerly faceless narrator robbed a story of some abstraction and potency.  Adam had always personally found the difference between the impression created by the work and the author in reality a bit of a disappointment, and preferred to be photographed in a way that left something to the imagination.

So I took the approach of letting the images reveal the author primarily through his activities and the wonderful textured environment of his home studio, rather than the entirety of his face. I lit enough of Adam to pull him away from his background, but not enough to define his features. His illustration work is dark and contrasty, and I mirrored some of that feeling through to the photographs.

Adam recently published Stop Thief, a story of a little boy who takes off after a stuffed animal snatcher. His illustrated books are aimed at children, but have a chiaroscuro palette often associated with darker themes. The Lemony Snicket influence shines though Adam's color choices.

The product of both a British and American upbringing, Adam was heavily influenced by comics throughout his childhood and maintains that his success communicating with children comes through a strong case of arrested development. As a child, he remembers not being able to conceive of adulthood and was terrified that life would end after his bar mitzvah, around the age of thirteen.

Later, Adam went on to write and illustrate for the Harvard Lampoon, and upon graduation, moved to Los Angeles to work on Disney feature films.

While at Disney, Adam started going to book stores to do research on what kids wanted in their favorite stories, and fell in love with picture books. He delved into creating stories because he wanted to do something for kids and parents to actively do together, and to be part of the magical relationship of a parent reading a story to a child.

Jennifer Haigh "News From Heaven" author photo shoot

Last June, Jennifer Haigh and I took a walk through one of Massachusetts' most beautiful parks together, World's End, in Hingham. We followed a wooded path through drumlins, low, rolling hills formed by glaciers, until we reached where the Atlantic Ocean reflected the sky. Jennifer walks these paths in order to think and compose, and I thought that it would be an appropriate place to photograph where she puts thoughts together to create her character-driven novels and short stories.

Originally, these images were going to be part of my Boston writers and artists series, but I was very pleased when Jennifer contacted me this past fall to ask if she could use one of the images from the shoot for her upcoming book of short stories set in and around the fictionalized coal-mining town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania, Her new book, News from Heaven: The Bakerton Stories, will be published by HarperCollins Publishers on January 29, 2013.

Jennifer is as she is photographed; direct, thoughtful, intelligent. She has a wry and down-to-earth sense of humor that came through our chat, and often surprised me through the course of our conversation. I remember asking her what she wanted to grow up to be when she was a kid, expecting that her answer might have to do with writing or the arts, and she paused thoughtfully, and replied, "I remember, at age five, wanting to be a gas station attendant." She had no memory of why, and we both chuckled. Obviously, things developed in a scholarly direction for her as she got older, as she ended getting her MFA at the University of Iowa in writing, and as an adult, she said she couldn't imagine doing anything but write.

I loved working with Jennifer because she was confident both of herself and how she enjoyed best being photographed, and also because of her trust in me. The walk was wonderful, and I was delighted to work with Jennifer, photographing her on a beautiful day at the World's End. If you'd like to learn more about Jennifer's work, please visit her beautiful website at http://www.jenniferhaigh.com.