Gus Van Sant


Left: Gus Van Sant, old and young, 2010, digital pigment print, 45 3/4 x 36 3/4“. Right: Gus Van Sant, lucian, 2010, digital pigment print, 16 1/2 x 11 1/2.”

The Academy Award–winning director Gus Van Sant is well known for his unparalleled vision in cinema, and for his original screenplays. An accomplished artist as well, he is debuting two bodies of photographic work in Oregon this month. “Cut-ups” opens at PDX Contemporary Art, Portland, on May 5, and “One Step Big Shot: Portraits by Andy Warhol and Gus Van Sant” will be on view at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, University of Oregon, Eugene, from May 16 to September 5.

THE FIRST TIME I USED A POLAROID CAMERA was during the making of Mala Noche (1985). When I bought the camera, I was very excited, although I didn’t have a particular purpose for it. At the time, I was just starting out, so things were slow. I remember that I felt like I had spent a lot of money on a device I didn’t need. But as time went by, it became very useful. I was attracted by the large negative that I could get from using 665 film. The photographs at PDX are created from Polaroid 665 negatives. Eventually, the camera became a tool for making a record during casting, but I also had the negatives to work with.

These works are produced on a computer, but I sort of wish they were cut up from prints. When I tried to do that, it was a little strange, not so organic––and not even “organic-looking.” I liked the digital cut more than the physical cut, so I went with that instead. In the end, these are all digital prints, and many originate from black-and-white Polaroid negatives that were shot during the 1990s––casting reference pictures for the films that I was making at the time.

I see the subjects in these works as new beings created from elements of others, like in William S. Burroughs’s concept of the cut-up where something new is made from cutting words together. There’s an oddness to the expressions of the subjects, which I always thought was because of the size of the camera I was holding; it was pretty big and old.

The works look Cubist because they show separate angles of the human form, fused together. They might be called erotic, but that isn’t something that I can pinpoint easily, because the images are perhaps appealing to some and not to others. Shirtless boys are easy to eroticize, and in my films I have had a number of them. They are usually shirtless because it is a little harder to have them more unclothed.

Warhol surely took more pictures than I ever have, because he was so into documenting everything. But he also used the camera as a shield, and that happened a lot when I was using it with the casting subjects, meeting them for the first time. When the conversation lagged I would grab the camera and take a picture, which would give me an opportunity to get people out of their chairs and out the door. It was a way of saying good-bye to the actors I met.

— As told to Stephanie Snyder