Robert Weingarten’s work spans the possibilities of photography—from traditional black-and-white prints to digital mashups composed entirely in Photoshop. In advance of his lecture at the Getty Center this Thursday, September 16, I spoke to him about his approaches to photography—and what it was like to work with subjects ranging from Eric Fischl to Dennis Hopper.

<em>Portraits Without People: Dennis Hopper</em>, Robert Weingarten, 2006. © Robert Weingarten

Portraits Without People: Dennis Hopper, Robert Weingarten, 2006. © Robert Weingarten

Your lecture title is “From Film Fidelity to Digital Metaphor.” What does that mean?

“Film fidelity” means film as a document you can rely on. The first series I’ll talk about, my 6:30 a.m. Series, relied on the documentation value of film—it was captured on film and digitally printed to be faithful to what the film recorded.

The second project I’ll discuss is my Palette Series.  Here I moved to digital capture (though still through a viewfinder) and digital printing. The third project, The Portrait Unbound, was digitally captured, composed using Photoshop, and digitally printed. So the lecture is about this continuum.

Your Palette series features depictions of 40 contemporary artists’ palettes. What drew you to that subject?

I’d spent a year on the 6:30 a.m. Series, which was about measuring the change in the color of light at the exact same place, at the exact same time of day. I gave a lot of thought to chroma and atmosphere, and started wondering if the light artists live with informs their palettes. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to visit great living artists and ask them that question?”

Does light affect an artist’s work?

There’s no correlation whatsoever! Richard Estes had the lightest palette, and he was working on a gloomy day in New York. Ed Moses, who was working outdoors on a sunny day in Southern California, had the darkest.

The best answer came from Eric Fischl, who said to me, “There are two lights we live with—the light we see every day, and our internal light. It’s my internal light that informs my palette, no matter where I am in the world.”

<em>Amish 10, Lancaster County, PA</em>, Robert Weingarten, 2001. 15 9/16 x 19 5/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Gift of Alvin and Heidi Toffler

Amish 10, Lancaster County, PA, Robert Weingarten, 2001. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Gift of Alvin and Heidi Toffler

You also spent four years photographing Amish communities. How did you find this particular scene?

I was driving by and came upon that scene, with the kids’ scooters leaning against the wall of the school. In traditional Amish communities, the kids either walk or use scooters. I went into a field some ways back—I liked to use a long lens so I wouldn’t be in anyone’s way. I noticed there was a backlit window, so I waited about half an hour, and, miraculously, a teacher walked into the window and stood there for a couple minutes, allowing me to take a several frames. I knew right then how exciting I’d find the print.

For the Amish series, I took almost the opposite approach from the one taken by the photographers in the exhibition Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography since the Sixties—many of them met the people they photographed, which has a power to it. With the Amish, thought it was important not to interfere with their lifestyle, and so I took pictures in a manner in which they weren’t aware of me.

What inspired you to create the Portrait Unbound series, which features “portraits without people”?
Several years before I started the project, I wrote a question in my notebook: “Can you represent someone photographically without showing them?”

A couple of years later, I had a show of the Palette series at the Corcoran. At the opening, a curator from the National Portrait Gallery turned to me and said, “It’s too bad you don’t do portraits—but I guess these palettes, in a way, are portraits of the artist.” Later I happened to look back at my book and saw that I’d asked that question about representing people without showing them.

The Portrait Unbound Series features Mikhail Baryshnikov, Hank Aaron, Sandra Day O’Connor, and other notable subjects. How did you pick them?

I decided to use to use icons for the portraits, but the question was, “What constitutes an icon?” The first thing you get from friends is a bunch of names of celebrities—and that, I didn’t want to do!

I chose people who are so important and interesting that 50 years from now, even if I didn’t know them by name, I’d be impressed by their standing in their field and society.

What was it like working with the subjects of these portraits?

It was fascinating. In my earlier work, part of the joy was being out in the landscape all alone, waiting for the right light, composing my images. But in the Portrait Unbound series, I was meeting and talking to people in all different fields: one day I’d be talking to Baryshnikov, and another day I’d be talking with James Watson, who won the Nobel Prize for discovering the double helix.

And what was it like to work with Dennis Hopper?

Totally fabulous—and creatively stimulating. He was a very artistically sophisticated person who was genuinely engaged in the process of making art. I’ll miss him.

We even ended up exchanging photographs—it’s an interesting story. I was in his studio when he’d just come back from England and taken a fabulous photograph of David Hockney. There’s a non-posed, right-in-your-face photo of Hockney on the left side. On the right, in the background, is a painting of Hockney’s that shows his father sitting on a chair, prim and proper, reading a book—and the contrast between Hockney and his father is stunning.

Dennis wouldn’t sell it to me; he’d only trade it with me. He came to visit and brought the photo already framed. I asked him to pick any portrait he wanted. He graciously and modestly said, “My portrait isn’t worth your portrait. I’ll pick out a smaller piece.”

A couple years later, I learned that there were only three of those portraits of Hockney. I’d never looked on the back, where it said “1 of 3.” Dennis gave Hockney one, me one, and he kept one. How generous is that?

What series are you working on now?

I’m not ready to say. The idea has already been formed and I’m starting to put together all the pieces. Hopefully it will be interesting!

Text of this post © J. Paul Getty Trust. All rights reserved.