Portrait by Nicole Okumu/www.meremortals.nyc
When you come from an artistic pedigree like Christian Witkin, you are destined for greatness in the creative world. Christian embodies a quintessential life of an artist through and through. He's also humble, polite and frank during our brief-chat-turned-extensive-conversation that dwelt into his thought process in creating his photographs of iconic figures and his approach in street portraits. Read on...
Let's start with the origin story. What gravitated you towards fine art photography?
My father is a fine art painter and my uncle is a fine art photographer (Joel Peter Witkin). I always look up to my father because he was very different than any of the fathers that I know of. He's doing something he's very passionate about. He made just enough to pay rent and put food on the table. To me, there's something very heroic about that.
He took a job as a teacher so that he wouldn't have to worry about money and carry on painting. That background led me into pursuing fine art when I went to school. As for photography, I was fascinated by the technical aspect of it because in my opinion, the artistic aspect is something you were born with. That's not really something you can learn from school.
Back when I first came to NYC, getting jobs in the photo industry was quite easy. I worked for two different studios; one for a fashion and the other for a headshot photographer. I really liked the industry back in those days. After that, I no longer wanted to go back to school because I learned so much more from being an assistant to working professional photographers.
I was very fortunate that things happened very quickly when I was ready to hit the magazine world.
Tell me about your relationship with VIBE.
It all started with Lisa Berman. She was one of the photo editors at Vanity Fair back when I was starting out. I had taken my work to show her and she loved them. She told me there's a new magazine called VIBE that I should take my work to. She knew George Pitts , who was the photo editor of VIBE back then, and told me to go meet him. I think it was the same day that I found myself sitting in front of George and presented him with my body of work. I could tell he loved my work because he immediately put my work in front of Gary Koepke, who at the time, was the creative director of VIBE. They had a brief discussion and by the time I left VIBE, I had two assignments in my pocket.
As if that wasn't exciting enough, I got to fly to Jamaica to shoot those assignments. I brought a friend with me who acted as my middlemen as well as as my translator and local fixer. One of my subject was Buju Banton and the other were the Jamaican gigolos in Negril. The second assignment was super fun to shoot but quite challenging and a bit bizzare. The story ended up winning all kinds of awards so it turned out to be an amazing experience.
That's how it all started with VIBE. After those two assignments, I became one of the star shooter for the magazine.
Around that time, me, Dana Lixenberg, and Dah Len were the three main contributors who shot all the major assignments for VIBE.
On a side note, I've met Dah Len prior to shooting at VIBE. He used to be my downstair neighbor.
Back in those days, he was making a living shooting actors' headshots and I was surviving as a photo assistant.
My relationship with VIBE faded when George left the magazine. The wonderful thing that came out of that whole experience was my continued relationship with Gary Koepke who went on to start his own Boston-based company called Modernista.
I have a feeling this is going to lead to the Gap campaign.
That is correct. Gary came to me and asked me for a visual direction idea if I was to shoot a compelling celebrity campaign for Gap, the new account he just picked up. They were looking for a different take on Gap's iconic celebrity portraiture.
At the time, I had been doing these 4x5 Polaroid during modelsgo-see and I pin them on to a wall and the entire collection of these Polaroid had turned into this humongous poster on the wall that kept on growing.
This series of Polaroid was shot in my studio and under the skylight. It consisted of subjects standing on a very simple wooden floor in the corner of walls. I showed Gary this wall of 4x5 Polaroid collage and told him this was how I would do the Gap campaign. He fell in love with the idea and pitched it to the powers that be at Gap and it was a done deal.
From that point on, I was shooting at least two years worth of Gap campaigns non-stop.
This is a perfect example of how a photographer's career should progress. You worked with someone and cultivated that relationship. Then you'd get assignments from them when they moved on to other gigs. Relationships are very important to the longevity of your professional photo career. Only fools would burn bridges because they're too proud to swallow their pride and let ego came between a thriving professional relationship. NEVER BURN BRIDGES. That's one of the holiest mantra in this business.
Tell me about the casting process for Gap. It was one of the more interesting Gap campaign I've seen because it's so different from any other they've done prior to or since then.
That was Gary and his partner Lance's magic touch. They were geniuses in that sense.
The first leg of the campaign was photographing ten people who were still under the radar but priming to explode into stardom. They were artists who just released a new album that's about to blow up, or actors/actresses who were in a lead part of a movie that was about to get a lot of recognition. For the most part, most of these celebs did turned out to be huge while a small minority of them fall back into obscurity.
That was a big leap for the Gap to go with Gary's instinct but they loved the creative handling of it. The second leg of the shoot involved more mainstream, but still interesting group of celebrities. We would let the subjects wear the garment the way they usually wear them. The styling component in that campaign played a major role in lending such a personal touch to the images.
Have you switched to digital now?
Yes, I've digitally shot all my commercial work from the last few years.
Nowadays, when I shoot celebrities for magazines, I always bring some film camera with me along with some film. At the end of the shoot, I always managed to squeeze some film shoot in there. The whole processing and proofing doesn't have to cost a lot of money either, thanks to all the digital proofing through your phone's app and sending the proofs through email straight from your phone to the editor. At the end of the day, I really like having negatives that I can archive.
We all work in the digital world with digital deadlines so if you are using analog film on your shoots, you have to establish a system that is at least on par in terms of delivery timeline with the digital format. I was rejecting digital for a long time until I decided to shoot a completely digital personal project to familiarize myself with the digital format. That's how I eased myself into digital photography. I invested on the Nikon D800 system and the transition helped a great deal through me owning all Nikon lenses that the digital body could assimilate nicely with.
The Jefferson Park series came out this whole experience.
The Blue Note Jazz album cover and liner note inspired that series. I wanted to create something dynamic that's different from a black and white photo series. I applied the concept of watermelon red and subtle green hue tint seen on the LP covers and liner notes of the jazz albums from the era of Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis. I wanted to breathe something different to the reportage images in this series by seeing them as images out of the jazz albums from the eras of the 50s, 60s, and 70s.
Tell me about the projects that you are turning into photo books.
I have been steadily doing personal projects annually during Christmas time since the early 90s. They were either a new project or a continuation of an on-going series of work. I tend to leave large projects alone for a period of time to let them breathe and came back to them much later in time and look at them with different perspective and new sets of idea.
Coming out of the gate first will be a book on nudes and a book on celebrities.
Do you shoot every day? Looking through your body of work, I'd imagine you almost have to shoot every single day in order to amass such a diverse and vast archive of photographic images.
I really don't. I am not Araki.
Realistically, I can't afford that and I have to be smart about it because shooting constantly require a lot of editing. We both know that's very time consuming. On top of that, many of my personal projects were shot on 8X10 camera so they required careful planning and doing so certainly cost more than shooting them on digital format. So yeah, my carefully planned way of shooting prevented me from being able to shoot every aingle day.
You've shot a lot of street portraits of real people. How do you talk them into agreeing to sit for you?
I am about to teach a workshop in September called THE ART OF THE PORTRAIT. This particular workshop will take place in the country of Guatemala. The core of this type of sitting has to do with how you approach your subject because everything depend on what happened in the first ten seconds. Your prospective subject will be sizing you up by looking you from head to toes. You need to mind how you project yourself to your would-be subjects.
Your tone of voice and your body language are part of the important components. Your would-be subject will be taking you all in and within the first few seconds, they will make up their mind whether to let you shoot them or not. You have to be smart about it.
I learned so much from going to India to start my project back in 92. That was such an inspiring experience because I was literally being propelled back in time from shooting the people of India.
You actually went to countries where you did not even speak their language and somehow managed to pull people off the streets and had them do portrait sittings with you. What's the method that you used in that kind of situation?
Well, you know, I always had a translator with me. He's either my driver, or a local assistant who spoke the language. The advantage I had was that they were curious about me, so curiosity work both ways. However, it did not escape the fact that they would still judge me before letting me had a go at them in front of the camera.
In some way, getting a homeless man who was having a hard day in Times Square to let me shoot him posed a much more difficult task than shooting someone in a foreign country.
The reality of it is, sometime you do have to pay them in order to shoot them… I'd do whatever necessary; so often time, I did compensated them for their time and patience.
Can you describe your street set up?
I typically had an assistant with me who set up a small seamless on a quiet street corner and we'd bring my subjects there.
Often time, I'd use a massive foldable flexfill and tape it to the wall as a background.
I used mostly available light and reflectors as light sources.
I noticed in a lot of these pictures, your subjects were appropriately attired for the sittings. Their outfit suited their demeanor and style. Did you dress them up or had a stylist put their look together?
No, that was the organic nature of it; my subjects dressed the way they were when I shot them.
I think that a lot of the photographs became exceptionally valuable after some time had passed. I started to see that happening to my archive. In any case, going back to street photography, I think Avedon's work definitely influenced me.
Him, Penn, and Diane Arbus are the reason some of us become photographers, you know?
How do you approach your subject on a sitting? Are you a talker like Avedon, who coached the emotion out of his subject through story telling and engrossed them in conversation, or are you strictly an observer who immortalized precious fleeting moments off your subjects?
It depends, really. I respect my subjects so I don't like to put them on a pedestal or overly sympathize with them.
I just like to keep them engaged with the camera and with me. Sometime I have to talk more to ease their nervousness.
I'd tell them that they don't need to do anything and to leave it up to me to do the work. I think that is the key point in my portrait because the instinctive question my subjects always asked was "What do you want me to do?". The correct answeris… "I just want you to be who you are and allow me to do the rest of the work". That statement really loosened and relaxed my subjects quite a bit because the pressure is now transferred to me. By that point, I'd have already earned their trust.
They say the eyes are windows to the soul and there might be some truth to it in this instance. I felt my subject could tell from staring at me that I simply want to take a photo of them, and nothing more.
When you dealt with the subject of the Thai Lady Boys, how did you approach them and turned them into your collaborators?
That was one of my favorite series. The whole shoot was photographed in a beautiful, traditional Thai house located right next to the river.
It all started when I was shooting a job in Thailand for German GQ in 2003. I walked into a trans bar with my camera and picked a girl and went through the routine of making the arrangement like paying for her services. Then I spent the entire time shooting her instead of doing the alternative.
That was how I was exposed to the Thai Lady Boys. The next time I was shooting them, I was using a 4x5 camera all set up in a beautiful traditional Thai mansion right by the riverside. It was quite a difficult task finding location that will allow us to shoot the Thai Lady Boys because property owners frown on having them around their properties. I couldn't be happier with the location I got for this project. I used a couple of balanced tungsten light combined with natural daylight that's streaming through the windows as light sources. We had full on hair and make up people and my girlfriend at the time was doing the wardrobe styling for the shoot.
The producer we hired scouted the talents and ended up with 25 girls which we staggered to the set in over the course of a week.
The atmosphere of the shoot was quiet and respectful. I had a local assistant and an intern who were total professionals and a joy to work with. In the end, the project turned out beautifully.
You forgot the crassness of these women who were once men because some of them were extraordinarily beautiful and carry themselves elegantly.
I wanted to go back to Bangkok once more to finish this project and visit another community in Pattaya to shoot the talents there.
I noticed you had done several workshops. Do you like teaching workshops and seminars?
I think I am at that point of my career where it is fun for me to talk about stuff. When I was younger, I was not ready to share my life story and experiences to a crowd of strangers. One of the reason I like it now is because it forces me to think of my work more critically. I always feel surrounded by my work and the selfish aspect of it come into play. That's okay because you have to be a bit self-indulgent to be an artist. It's a difficult position to be in because you are baring yourself to the world through your work and you want to give it your best.
Sometime you get so absorb with your own work that you forgot how to be critical and be more intellectual in looking at them. However, I don't accept any lecture offer per se but it's fun to do it at interesting settings and locations. I did it once in Santa Fe with photographer Norman Jean Roy. I took up Norman's offer in joining him in the lecture series that turned out to be a fun experience. I am about to do another lecture in Guatemala this coming September that I am really looking forward to. It's a workshop on human interaction in portrait sitting environment.
You haven't had representation for a while. Was it by choice or because you have had bad experiences with photo agencies?
It's both. I had been with one agent for 19 years. He ended up becoming a partner with CLM agency, which is all about fashion. They didn't seem to be a good fit for me because I am more a portrait guy. I felt like it was time for me to move on from him after 19 years. I became confused and dismayed with the whole industry and decided to try a very commercial agency who could get me a bunch of commercial work so I could carry on working on my personal stuff without worrying about sources of income. That turned out to be a terrible idea.
Had you asked me five years prior if I would be interested in joining a behemoth commercial photo agency, I would''e laughed in your face and yet there I was, looking at their rather impressive roster of photographers and seduced into thinking that I might find a home there, and that they could help me realize my career plan. That idea turned out to be such a flop.
Due to the massive amount of people they represented, they never pushed anyone and rather just let their artist swim or sink on their own. To paint it in a crude analogy, it's like owning a dog and never take it out for a walk or play outside the house. The dog would have never survived.
I was repulsed by the whole experience and decided to withdrew back in June 2014 to personally take charge of my career. That bring us to this point. I had decided to hire someone competent and reliable to manage me. Someone who is in my corner whom I can trust and invest in a business relationship with.
We have plans to create photographic work and produce short films.
It's a company called Meremortals.
It's almost like a startup but with veteran experience behind it.
I have been really focusing on finding new facets to keep myself happy and passionate as a photographer.
I went through my entire archive and come up with a very tight edit of my celebrity work and found there are so much more than I thought I have.
I predicted that I had shot about 150 celebrities but it turned out to be more like 350! This archive gave me such a boost and I am thankful for not taking the career path of being a strictly fashion shooter because I was able to amass such a valuable archive of celebrity work. It is now worth quite a substantial amount of money. It's from 1993 to current so there are about 22 years worth of celebrity images in this archive.
There is change in the air that I feel really good about. It's better to take your time and assess your goal. It's like heading to a destination and knowing what you are going to do when you get there. I will be releasing a slew of new projects. A couple of new books, some new editorials and a few new short films are in the work through Meremortals.
I am at a cross road of my career where I have achieved all my goals and currently looking ahead as to what I want to do next and where to go from here.
Right now, I love living in New York again after being weighed down by this city for so long through work and such.
I feel refreshed and inspired by this city all over again. I am back to being very optimistic about things, which is all very good.