on being photographed : george pitts, an artist at work

Last week I had the privilege of being the subject of one of the masters of American photography. George Pitts is not only a highly regarded figure in fine art and editorial photography, but also in the world of academia. Few artists have been able to achieve this level of success in all these realms. He started out as a painter and is also a writer. He has been Director of Photography for such publications such as: LIFE magazine and VIBE/SPIN. He is a fine art photographer for the New York Times, Taschen Books, etc. For the past three years, he has been Director of Photographic Practices at Parsons The New School here in New York. Currently, he is also consulting Director of Photography for Latina magazine. He is working on an art book for Taschen featuring provocative photographs of women 35 and older. He was interested in photographing me with the possibility of the photos being published in the book. Needless to say, I was thrilled at the chance to work with him.

I knew after our first meeting that I wanted to be photographed by George Pitts. We had such an interesting discussion about photography and sensuality. I felt that I was dealing with a very thoughtful, humble, intelligent creative and a true artist. I was comfortable around him which was really key for me. He also challenged me and was genuinely interested in my ideas, my biases and my general point of view as a female art director/designer who is conscious and critical of media's image of women. When I asked about the inspiration behind photographing women over 35, he told me that it started out as a personal project, born out of a genuine love for women. He found older women were not only more interesting, but also largely invisible in the media landscape. Unlike the French, there is clearly a glorification of youth in American culture (as with many others). Taschen was so interested in this work that they proposed the idea of a book. Partly because no one else has taken on the subject matter. The fact that he has photographed women from all walks of life (doctors, artists, mothers, writers, etc) for this book project made it even more interesting to me. I saw it as an homage to women and a once in a lifetime opportunity. 

I consider myself a feminist, one that believes in celebrating female sexuality. I think women are entitled to it and should feel confident in owning its power. I knew going into it that it would involve being photographed in the nude. It was something I was, perhaps, intellectually ready for, though it look me a while to fully feel emotionally ready. I took time to really consider my own limitations. But I felt confident that I would be in the hands of someone who had a critical eye and took this art very seriously. 

Last Friday was our scheduled shoot date. I came to a studio in Dumbo, Brooklyn – nervous and excited. I was looking forward to the experience and to continue the conversation with him. I had done a lot of thinking since our meeting and was as prepared as I could be. George Pitts used a Mamiya C330 medium format (2 1/4") film camera and used a combination of natural and circular strobe light called a "beauty dish" (I had never seen one before). He also had an old school Polaroid film camera to show me and test the lighting. He meticulously measured light before every shot. The conversation about the photos was a constant throughout the day. He took into consideration my ideas and my thoughts on style which I shared with him at an earlier date via email. He was a consummate professional. He was generous about sharing knowledge about fine art, teaching and publishing. He took notice of my awareness and attention to detail. He talked me through everything he was about to do — always conscious of my comfort level and personal preferences. Admittedly, my only hesitations were limited to personal insecurities about body image – which I knew were normal. During the shoot, we listened to everything from the soundtrack to my favourite film, In The Mood For Love by Wong Kar Wai to Grace Jones and Serge Gainsbourg. As a side note, he told me that the film In The Mood.. is also one of his favourite films and is required viewing for the class he teaches to both graduate and undergraduate fine art students, Picturing Sexuality. We discussed everything from film to art, culture, music, Michael Jackson, dance, ideas about eroticism (and the semantics around it), fashion, you name it. There was a healthy dose of laughter thrown in as well. Conversation was constant. Only interrupted during moments when he was actually taking photographs. I knew I wanted to look elegant. My design background, of course, informed my point of view and taste. He told me that he actually prefers photographing real women as opposed to professional models. 

There were things that I only realized about myself through the process of being photographed. There are things I'm only now able to articulate. My mind was—and still is—spinning from the experience. On some level, it was an out of body experience. Quite surreal. I will write more about it later when I share some of the photos from the shoot. There were many things that were unexpected that came out of working together that were interesting. The experience overall was an empowering one, personally. I am grateful for the opportunity. When we discussed the difference between the term "erotic photography" versus "pornography" he shared this: a model once told him that "erotic photography allows you to dream, whereas pornography erases the need to do so." It was a statement that stuck with him. In a recent interview I read, he mentions that he doesn't "believe the eroticized body only lies in the domain of porn... A central concern of mine is how to render contemporary sexuality creatively, with beauty, wit, depth, intensity and compassion; introducing newer paradigms in the process." This really struck me as well. It is a great learning experience to me to work with someone that is able to have critical dialogue about his work. 

Below is a selection of George Pitt's fine art and editorial photography.