WHEN TWO OR MORE ARE GATHERED TOGETHER
A defining moment in my development as a photographer was viewing the group portrait of a boy scout troop. There stood four rows of young boys, their badges and neckerchiefs all alike, but within the group uniformity, each personality was apparent. Some were laughing, some clowning, some gazing solemnly into the camera lens, but all exuded an extraordinary humanness, a unique individuality. While the photograph was black-and white, I tried to imagine the colors, the shades of tan, the reds, the golden glints of the medals. I wondered about each boy, about what happened after that photo was taken. They came together for an instant in time, then vanished forever. The idea of the photograph as memory took root in my thinking. In fact, this photograph was the origin of my lifelong fascination with groups and with color.
My first foray into groups was to photograph the Flushing Volunteer Ambulance Corps, the drivers and medics posed in front of their building with two ambulances and the trophies they’d won. With the light shining into my lens, I took a sun-drenched, mood-filled portrait of the group. This also marked the beginning of my new attitude toward the role of color in photography. When I began my life as a photographer, color was considered taboo. Black-and-white was the only medium that was taken seriously and my earliest work conformed to that unwritten rule. But photographing my first group in 1972, I discovered the power of color. In the black-and-white shots of the Ambulance Corps, the trophies all look alike, while in in color, the first-place gold trophies are easily distinguished from the second-place silver trophies. The color photograph instantly communicated information, enriching the photograph and giving it nuance it lacked in black-and-white. From that time on, I broke with tradition in favor of color. I have come to believe that the purpose of color is not to make a pretty picture, but to communicate ideas, to visually affirm particular concepts and ideas.
Being the photographer of group photographs is to be a kind of Master of Ceremony, directing, but allowing each individual to perform. I find that hands-off methods reveal the characters within the group and so 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 individuals. Instead, I walk a delicate line between giving general instructions and allowing the group free rein to express itself while I watch individuals who jockey for position, thrusting a shoulder in front of the next person or wearing the widest smile, while others recede into the background, who are posing only because to be a part of something larger—the group. My role is capture a complete image, incorporating the eccentricities of human behavior that have emerged naturally from the multitude of personalities. In some ways, it’s like preparing a banquet and having all the food ready at the same time. In other ways, it’s like being a sociologist, examining individual behavior within the group. I find this method is also effective in revealing spirit and character in individual portraiture.
I want my work to affirm our self identity within our public persona; to affirm the joy of being together rather than being apart. My intention is to intensely glimpse that kind of human spirit through the lens of my camera.