Whilst looking through the course book ‘Train Your Gaze’ by Roswell Angier, I became interested in the chapter of photographing people in darkness. The work of Gary Schneider is particularly captivating in this style as he created a series of projects that produced long exposures of human subjects, including nudes, headshots and profile shots. What is interesting is Angier’s linking of his approach to photographing people to earlier techniques in photography, such as daguerreotype methods. Portrait photographers in these early days of photography required the subject to sit for minutes at a time before a proper exposure was achieved. Moving to a later period, she cites the French photographer Brassai, who worked around the limitations of the time such as the absence of light meters and a range of film speeds to achieve creative and thought provoking images. His night shots of Paris in the 1930s were edited into a book ‘Paris le nuit’ that was released in 1933.
These days producing photos with long exposure times is seen as a hindrance and perhaps even impractical by many. However Schneider has embraced this method as a central part of his photography, particularly after unearthing an archive of small collodion plate glass negatives in a New York flea market. The negatives contained a series of portraits of anonymous women in various locations. Intrigued Schneider enlarged them to life-size silver prints and was immediately taken by their expressions which displayed a lack of familiarity with the camera. In other words they did not know how to behave in front of the camera, and Schneider felt this showed sensitivity and less posed photos, despite the wooden postures each subject was forced to adopt as a result of the long exposure times.
For his own work, Schneider greatly amplified this method to capture what he hoped would be the essence of his subjects. Whereas the photographer who shot the flea market negative plates had left the shutter open for eight minutes, Schneider planned to increase the exposure times to an hour. For ease of pose and practicality, he had his subjects lay down on the floor of his studio and had them look into the camera suspended above their heads. Employing an 8×10-inch view camera, Schneider framed the subject and then proceeded to turn off the studio lights, opened the shutter and began the painstaking process of lighting face segments of the subject with a torch.
What is inspiring about these portraits is the amount of improvisation Schneider had to employ. Although he retained some measure of control from composition and directing the light, he also relied on the subject immensely and the unpredictability of film ensured he couldn’t know for sure how the final image would look. Looking at the photograph “Shirley” (2001) below, it is hard to define the subject, primarily as the clear lines of the torch are impressed into the glasses therefore covering the eyes. Angier considers the portrait as more of a montage, rather than a single image, almost a series of photographs of the subject compressed into one.
This effect is something that would be greatly amplified when observed as a huge print as was doubtless Schneider’s intention. As well as artifacts such as the torchlight in the glasses that are apparent even on a small reproduction, more elements would become noticeable, particularly that of motion as would be inevitable over such a long exposure time. As it is, the portrait of his subject is quite intangible and this is also paradoxical when you consider that Schneider only photographed friends, family or people who knew well.
A link to more of Schneider’s portrait work can be found below, as well as a page containing some of Brassai’s images of Paris.