Portrait photography is “an art form like any other. Good art becomes a self-portrait,” according to Taos photographer and sculptor Paul O’Connor. When he is photographing a person ...
Portrait photography is “an art form like any other. Good art becomes a self-portrait,” according to Taos photographer and sculptor Paul O’Connor. When he is photographing a person, he said he tries to reduce himself as a presence in the image, focusing on the eyes of his subject. “It’s like a glimpse into somebody without me being in it.”
O’Connor has become a de facto chronicler of Taos faces, famous and not so famous, ever since he published his iconic volume, “Taos Portraits,” in 2012.
O’Connor will present his latest series of portraits in an exhibit titled “Taos Characters Volume V: Black-and-White Portraits,” which opens with a reception today (June 6), 5-7 p.m., in the Encore Gallery of the Taos Community Auditorium, 145 Paseo del Pueblo Norte.
Following the reception, the latest edition of “Pecha Kucha Night Taos, Volume 29,” will take place on the auditorium stage featuring a live and in-person selection of “Taos Characters” sharing their stories and creativity. Music will be provided by DJ Julia Daye. Tickets for Pecha Kucha are $10. The opening reception in the gallery is free. (For more on this edition of Pecha Kucha, see the accompanying sidebar.)
In his first collection of 60 black-and-white photographs, "Taos Portraits," O’Connor's celebrated local artists with commentary by those with whom they are personally familiar. The book represents cross-cultural and cross-generational facets of the Taos art community. Among those included are Larry Bell, Bob Ellis, Gus Foster, Dennis Hopper, Ken Price, Tony Reyna, Mark Romero, Dean Stockwell, Maye Torres and Carmen Velarde.
O'Connor has lived in Taos with his wife, Tizia, since 1989.
Tempo asked the artist a few questions about his work and inspiration – here are the highlights.
Describe your camera and relationship with it. What did you start with – what are you using now? Is there a camera or process that changed the art form for you?
The camera has always been a means to an end. I like things real simple so I can use it without thinking. My first camera was that Olympus OM-2 that I bought in Japan, which was a classic manual camera, nothing to talk about, that took me through my beginning photography class. The photos I made there got me a half scholarship into Pasadena Art Center [ArtCenter College of Design] where I attended straight after graduation from Pepperdine.
There, I had to buy a 4-by-5 view camera as all assignments were done with a large format camera. I always put the most money into the lenses and less in the bodies of cameras. The only thing that matters is the transmission of light onto the film and you don’t need a fancy camera to “hold” a piece of film. The camera has always been a tool for me, nothing else.
I will say, though, that working with a 4-by-5 demands you have it on a tripod. And photographing people with said camera and tripod means that the subject be still and motionless. This has a big influence on the image you can make.
I made the switch to digital in 2012 as I was working on the publication on my book, “Taos Portraits." I was in L.A. and ran into Maye Torres in Venice Beach. I had to add her to my book before it went to press, so I went to Samy’s Camera and rented a digital 35mm – a Nikon. I had never used one before, so I asked the guy to set it up to behave like a manual camera as much as possible, turning off auto focus, etc. Then, I ran back to Venice to do this shoot with Maye. I didn’t even know how to look at the images in playback mode! So I would snap the shutter then look at the screen for the three seconds that the image would appear before it was gone. When I saw the image that became the back cover of my book, I said, “I got it! We’re done.” I knew I had it so why keep shooting?
I did hand-hold the camera that day, but after buying my digital camera, I always shoot with it on a tripod, the same big tripod I used for my 4-by-5. I find it maintains the choreography of how I create portraits. I treat it like a large format camera. People always ask, so here: I use a Canon 6D body with a Zeiss prime 50mm lens, that’s it.
What inspires your creative flow?
I’m totally inspired by my subjects. It’s the reason I ask to do their portrait. There is a lot to explain here. I’m not documenting what I feel like are the best artists. It would be easier if I photographed flowers or bowls of fruit, but I like to photograph people, artists specifically, which is a very competitive world, and sometimes I catch grief from people saying, "Why did you shoot so and so and not him or her?" It’s a tough question because there are unexplainable elements that could include their work, their personality, their look, their mystique or aura that pulls me in to want to create a portrait. Even a more subtle element may play a part I cannot articulate.
How did you choose the work for this exhibition?
I only shoot about two to three portraits a year, so when I have 15 done, then I have an exhibit about every five to seven years. My first show was in 1991 and this is the fifth one, so I think that pencils out to every six years.
For more information, call the sponsoring organization Taos Center for the Arts at (575) 758-2052.
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