The amazing thing, the surprise, of this image is the realization that the photographer put their buddy in the jaws of a vice or a stylized pool beast. The ephemeral reflection magnifies this ingenious creative moment– it is as if the nonchalant poodle is being slowly digested. The capture of the seemingly mundane or banal in unique ways inspires awe in those that own cameras.
ST: Gary, were you predominantly into comic books or science fiction in college?
Gary: No, not at all, I was studying the old masters and learning how to draw and paint.
ST: Interesting, I see no attempt at brush marks or mark making of any kind. However, I do possibly see the influence of Sargent, the tall stately hint at portraiture of the evergreens, and, yes, the image does pay homage to Hockney, and possibly Thiebaud. The addition of the dog, the familiar quotidian, gives gentle wafts of Rockwell as well. Do you suppose your work would be different if you had been predominantly into comic books and science fiction?
Gary: I liked Zap Comix, but who didn’t? Science fiction, not so much. In college I mostly focused on learning drawing and painting technique; egg tempera, watercolor, oil. Come to think of it, I did take a course at The School of Visual Arts in NYC from R.O. Blechman and Charlie Slackman. They didn’t think much of my cartoons but liked my ideas. At that point I said fuck it.
ST: Then you must have much in common with Andy Warhol? I know that you also are a filmmaker. He incorporated photography and video in with his art practice. I can see in your work a unique energy, a creativity of purpose engendered by the proximity of other creatives – not unlike Andy’s “Factory.” Your photographs of the Burlesque performers are both playfully and achingly wonderful. Your work has much in common with Andy’s. The way you use the iconic imagery of Marilyn. The way he used the multiplier effect to such good result – I can see you painting in additional, multi-colored, images of Marilyn. There is such playful intensity in your work. Pathos too.
Gary: In high school and college I absolutely loved “underground movies.” I’d go to the local art cinema and spend whole evenings watching these films. I see where you’re coming from, those films (most of which were made in NYC) really influenced me, I loved those films. I moved to NYC after college, and met Andy and a lot of other artists. I loved Andy’s work but there were so many other influences. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what motivates me to create art. People have said that my work reminds them of Diane Arbus, but looking back, even as a kid I always had a soft spot for characters. I was always fascinated by their stories, and would learn things. In New York City I met characters like Peter Lee (see clip below), whom I used to paint with in Central Park. He was such a nut, but hilarious. The characters I met in NYC didn’t give a shit about what anybody thought of them. They were doing their thing and that’s all they cared about, that influenced me as well.
You mentioned Sargent, Hockney and Thiebaud. Of course I know/knew their work well, but got emotionally involved with the work of Hopper and Atget. I also really liked The Storyville Portraits. By the way, didn’t Picasso say something like “Bad artists copy, good artists steal”?
ST: Yes, I certainly see the influence of Diane Arbus and a bit of Sherwood Anderson or William Faulkner and, of course, that movie fabulously produced by David Byrne, “True Stories.” A delicate, and for me mortifying, bit of my family history is that my great aunt worked in Storyville. I can’t look at those photographs – the possibility of uncomfortable recognition. Uncomfortable recognition – is there not risk involved in getting too close to characters – the risk of recognizing ticklish aspects of yourself in them? They say that Fellini’s camera was actually looking back at him and, of course, there’s Jerry Lewis.
Gary: I think that in any artistic/creative endeavor whether you realize it or not, try to hide it or not, a part of yourself comes out. How can it not? I’m not uncomfortable with that.
I grew up in the fifties in suburban Ohio. It was very conservative. I wanted to wear fantastic clothes and do crazy things, but was seriously held back. The connection to my subjects must have to do with their freedom of lifestyle/expression which I wanted but was denied as a child.
I have worked with subjects like the legendary geek performer Scott Baker, subject of my documentary film BALLY-MASTER. The strange thing about Scott is that even though I spent a lot of time with him, I never knew him. A lot of my subjects don’t want to get close or in the end push people away.
ST: Have you ever thought about dressing your subjects up in some of your old, fantastic, crazy clothes? Sherwood Anderson was also born in Ohio. Faulkner was born in Mississippi. David Byrne was born in Scotland. Clothes seem to play a delicious part in their collective creative oeuvre. David Byrne would wear those architecturally startling big suits on stage. You speak of cinema. Do you consider your work theatrical?
Gary: The first time I traveled to Italy (in the late 80’s), I became aware of very elegant people wearing black. That made an impression on me and I became a devotee of black apparel. Years later I was on the street photographing in Florence and a Japanese couple said “scusa” as they walked through the shot I was composing. They thought I was a Florentine, I was so pleased about that. Since then I’ve evolved, I now wear black and white. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I outgrew the crazy clothes (I grew up in the 60’s) a long time ago. I think that the clothes I pick for my subjects fits in with my vision for the photograph, not the clothes I’d admired while growing up. I wonder what Dr. Freud would say about that?
Sometimes my photographs are staged and theatrical, sometimes strictly documentary (cinema verite). I know that making films and producing the off-Broadway show influenced my still photographs. The first time I got my hands on a video camera and started shooting I thought, man these are moving pictures! Pretty elementary, right? With a film you have as long as you need to tell a story, but with a photograph you have one single frame. With both making films and producing shows I believe that the result should be entertaining or thought provoking. My hope is that I am able to do that with my pictures.
ST: Dali also dressed mainly in black. Having spent most of my life in the cultural centers of Europe I see and yet I don’t see a pastiche of European atmospherics and sensibilities, however without the Dutch or German de rigueur, in your Sylvester Manor work. There seems to be an airing of your more romantic, elegiac side in these images?
Gary: Sylvester Manor was founded in 1652 as a slaveholding provisioning plantation, but that was a long time ago, so I don’t want to dwell on that. The Sylvester Manor photographs were taken over a period of one year, at the time I was suffering from Lyme disease. Taking these pictures was a very moving experience for me, it was almost as if the place was talking to me. For me there was something very sad but very spiritual about Sylvester Manor, I hope that I was able to portray that in this series.
ST: “What if everything in the world were a misunderstanding, what if laughter were really tears?”
― Soren Kierkegaard
There indeed is worn, accessible poignancy in those images. I possibly detect a latent melancholy in you. Melancholia has relentlessly haunted artists throughout the ages – Rothko chasing Van Gogh as it were. Do you have anything to say in closing about your creative waltzing — the choreography of burlesque and grand estate sartorial decay?
Gary: As an artist I will continue to evolve, I think that once you stop finding joy in exploration/experimentation you might as well hang it up. I don’t see a psychological link or interplay between the burlesque series and Sylvester Manor, do you? If so, I’d like to know. My guess is that most all artists (including me) are at least a tad melancholic. Lots of rejection out there. One thing for sure is that in times of trouble my artwork has been my salvation.
ST: Gary, thank you so much for your candor and generous repartee. Yes, I do see a link between the Burlesque series and the Sylvester Manor series. It is your curiosity and possibly an unconscious understanding of the pathos of life that lies behind a painted smile, a wicked skill or decaying majesty. Au revoir my friend and as Rod Stewart sang, “Every picture tells a story, don’t it…”
Shutter Talk is the brainchild of photograph collector, Interior decorator and world traveling raconteur, Lannie Versair. Lannie is the only child of a Midwestern Danish Furniture designer and a Parisian choreographer and poet. He splits his time with, his third and final wife, Clotilde and a triumvirate of pugs: Emil, Shorty and Victor Hugo, between a Frank Lloyd Wright bungalow in Oak Park, Illinois and the ancestral home in Paris.
Please visit Gary’s work at https://www.garybeeber.com/