PRINT September 2001


WHEN SOUTH AFRICAN-BORN, New York-based photographer Gary Schneider began making portraits of friends and acquaintances in 1989, he took as his model Julia Margaret Cameron's soulful, sepia-toned albumen prints and other nineteenth-century photographs that required sitters to remain still for up to eight minutes while the open lens absorbed their image. Schneider, who has no interest in the “decisive moment,” liked the idea of recording a subject over time, and, in effect, making time his subject: “I wanted to get away from the whole nature of modern technology, which allows a photographer to select a moment and allows the subject to project a particular image of themselves—their camera face.” But he knew he'd need more than a few minutes to subvert his sitters' self-consciousness and to make the emotional connection he craved. What he needed, it turned out, was nearly half an hour, during which time his subject reclined on the floor in the dark under the lens of an enormous eight-by-ten studio camera while Schneider, murmuring soothingly, illuminated his or her features one at a time with a tiny penlight.

The results were startling: contemporary spirit pictures, full of movement and mystery, whose shadowy subjects appeared at once ephemeral and vividly present. In the course of the camera's long exposure and Schneider's attentive, improvised painting with light, the sitter's hyperalert camera face softens and melts away, and something more complex and distinctive emerges. Because many of Schneider's subjects appear to have escaped or transcended their bodies, looking at his photos can be as thrilling and disturbing as glimpsing a ghost. This effect was especially pronounced in the black-and-white work that reached a peak of sorts in 1996 with John in Sixteen Parts, a mural-size portrait of the photographer's partner that is both literal and abstract, an inventory and an evocation.

Schneider brings that same far-from-glamorous, expressionistic quality to the large-scale color work he's been making over the past two years. Though his exposure time is shorter (typically around ten minutes) and the process more formalized because he can no longer transform the negative in his own darkroom, the photograph remains an intimate collaboration. Schneider, who claims Vito Acconci as an influence here, calls the work the diary of a performance: “the record of what the person did and what I looked at.' Then Helen coughs, shifting her eyes and nose into a cubistic meltdown, or Eddie's nervous vibration nearly dissolves his face into a dreamy soft-focus mask, the camera records the happy accidents of the performance as well as its duration. ”Eddie's wanting to be present comes through,“ says Schneider. ”Who the person is controls the result—what he or she is in my presence. Essentially, I'm starting with black and adding bits and pieces of information as I go along. And I'm constantly trying to find ways to accommodate the person inside of this activity, with no preconceived idea of what that activity is going to be, so the spontaneity, the privacy, and the intimacy of the moment is very naked."

Vince Aletti