A few years ago I had the honor of getting to meet and spend some time with Lydia Panas. It was in Tbilisi, Georgia, of all places - as I was there to make images of my own. It was by chance that the Kolga Tbilisi Photo Festival was taking place, and Lydia’s glorious photographs were part of a stunning exhibition put together by curator, Tina Schelhorn. Lydia was one of only a couple Americans there to take part in the festivities and share their work. In between my days of making photographs I was able to talk with her and meet a part of her family that was there to share in her experience. They were all so lovely and gracious to a misfit like myself, and I began to realize how her amazing tone leads to such telling portraits.
Lydia’s portraits ease us into the lives and feelings of her subjects like no one else I know. There is a sensitivity and a strong connection that she brings to every session, and it shows. Everyone appearing in her photographs achieves an unposed and natural state of being - reserved and knowing. Interestingly, people don’t even have to be a part of her photographs for them to be portraits, for she handles still lives, and environments in a similar manner, but with the same care and attention to light for those fortunate enough to have her lens focused their way.
It’s in the gaze she captures - the female gaze, the male gaze, a child’s gaze - with the relationships that wrap around each individual in exposing their lives and their manner of being. The outline of arranging this exposure is something I find quite fascinating. Bringing care and comfort to those you photograph is no easy task, but it is a photographer who makes images with a passion for relationships that can make it happen. It is with Lydia that I am grateful for her words and images to show us a way into these exchanges.
Lydia Panas is an artist working in photography and video. Her work explores our collective societal relationship to women. Using a variety of approaches, her practice is attentive to the psyche and what lies below the surface in an attempt to probe questions about who we are and what we want to become. The daughter of immigrants and raised between two continents, the notion of home has always felt elusive. Settling on seventy acres in Pennsylvania to raise her family, the natural landscape is an important element in the work.
Lydia’s work has been exhibited widely in museums and galleries in the U.S. and internationally. Her works are represented in public and private collections including the Brooklyn Museum, Bronx Museum, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Palm Springs Art Museum, Allentown Art Museum, Museum of Contemporary Photography Chicago, Museum of Photographic Arts San Diego, and the Sheldon Museum among others. Her work has appeared in many periodicals such as the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, The Village Voice, French Photo, and Hyperallergic. Lydia has degrees from Boston College, the School of Visual Arts, and New York University/International Center of Photography. She is the recipient of a Whitney Museum Independent Study Fellowship and a CFEVA Fellowship. She has two monographs, Falling from Grace (Conveyor Arts 2016) and The Mark of Abel (Kehrer Verlag 2012) which was named a best coffee table book by the Daily Beast. She divides her time between Kutztown, Pennsylvania and New York, New York.
Michael Kirchoff: How were you first introduced to photography and who or what were your earliest influences?
Lydia Panas: I always thought I might like to take pictures and while I was studying graphic design at the Art Institute of Boston, I took a photography class with David Ulrich, who recently published Zen Camera. My memory of the class is that he helped each of us understand that we had something to say. hat was huge. I never looked back and I am forever grateful for his generosity.
I have always been very visual. I am always looking at things, people, etc, closely, sometimes over an extended period of time and everything I see adds to my knowledge base until ultimately, I intuit something. I have a kind of sixth sense this way, especially with people. Often my models say that I catch secrets in my photographs. I have always wanted to ferret out the truth.
I look to literature, music, dance, and psychoanalysis for inspiration all of which stimulate my interest in the mind. Painting also has a hold on me. I use the camera because it works as the most direct tool for me to articulate what I need to express. I am not interested in using it to document things as a viewer or as an outsider. I use it to express things that I feel within. The camera affords me a remarkable ability to connect and feel my way through whatever/whoever I shoot. I consider my work to be literary, abstract, more about concept. Like when you read good literature and the over-riding theme is more important than the story-line.
MK: You’ve always had a very strong connection to family, both past and present. Is this where your start in connecting with others in your photography originated? How has your own family guided your direction as a photographic artist?
LP: My interest in family is due in part to our status as immigrants. When you cross the ocean to live in another part of the world, family becomes critical. I felt that our family was like an island in a vast unknown. Not fitting in, we had to hold on to one another. It was also a mix of customs - I felt this in both countries - which was confusing. At the same time, my artistic sensibility was anathema to our family temperament, which was like a double whammy. I became an artist from a strong need to be seen and heard. Ultimately, I became interested in how people become themselves, how they feel, what drives them. I thought if I understood others better, it would help me fit in. Family is the first place I look to begin to understand where someone is coming from. That’s where all the secrets lie.
MK: I know that the majority of your photographs are made on location and in the studio at your home in Pennsylvania. Do you feel that your relationship to the environment you create your work in is important to the overall tone of what you are trying to achieve?
LP: We moved to this seventy-acre farm from New York City, to raise our kids away from the overload and to live on the land. My husband’s family has a long history in Pennsylvania, and shaping our life here, restoring the farmhouse, reforesting the property, raising the kids close to nature has offered me a place to belong. In so many ways, my work is about home, family, relationships, and the land. It’s also about being a woman, about belonging, and allowing my voice to be heard. This property is reminiscent of the way my father grew up in Greece. He helped us reforest the land, planting thousands of trees side by side with us for years. Nature was like a religion to him. The property has become an important part of my life and my family’s life as well. It has been a positive force, living here, making the work here, it has given me space. There is a stillness about this place that inspires me. So yes, this place is important to my work and I do think it sets a very specific tone.
MK: Your photographs are very well celebrated, with an impressive list of public collections, grants and fellowships, and publications and exhibitions. Does this acceptance and admiration for your work create any kind of pressure or need to continue what you work on?
LP: Not really. My goal is to I try and go deeper into my psyche with every new series. Each successive project looks at the notion of relationships from a different angle. If you look closely at my trajectory you will find a variety of projects, including still life and a landscape project. Recently I have been doing some video. I always want to venture way out of my comfort zone and try something totally new, but I am driven by an internal guide and I have learned to let it inspire me as it needs to come. For sure, every time I start something new, I’m afraid it will fail, and it won’t work, but I think that’s a good thing. I always think that audiences want to see something different anyway. The pressures I feel are about challenging my own notions of where the work will go and if I can do something good again.
MK: There is a deep visual connection with the subjects in your portraits. Are there palpable changes that occur when moving from photographing females to males? Is it more difficult or different to connect with males versus females? Do you feel that the gender of the photographer is something that can be, or needs to be, circumvented when approaching a portrait session?
LP: Yes, there are differences for me when photographing males vs. females. At its core, my work is about looking inward at my own fears and about connecting. It’s about understanding who I am, where I am going, and how I fit into the world. My interest is expansive I am interested in other people’s psychology, women’s, in particular, and what we hold in common.
When making photographs, I connect differently with women. They fascinate me. I tend to connect and identify more when looking through the lens at a woman. I see more of me. This does not mean that when I photograph men I don’t see and feel subtleties. I do. They are human beings and I am interested in the same things with them. It’s just that for projects that demand a kind of obsession, women seem to come to the fore.
Regarding your question about gender of photographer and whether or not gender needs to be circumvented, I think it’s the opposite. I think we always need to be conscious of our part in the process when we portray someone. I am very attentive to what I bring to the encounter when making a portrait and my role is important to the outcome. My portraits are not straight portraits of someone else. They are about what happens to me in the process. When making a portrait, I tap into feelings I had as a child, vulnerability, fear, discomfort, and a lot more. I want the viewer to feel what I was feeling, the vulnerability. My portraits often make people uncomfortable. They are challenging. They ask a lot of the viewer. They ask the viewer to participate and try to tap into what they are feeling when they look at the face in the photograph. An example is what many men tell me about looking at the women in my photographs. They say they feel somewhat challenged, uncomfortable at the way the women look out at them. The women in my images are not trying to be polite, or nice, or pleasing. They look out with a sense of defiance, resistance. They take charge of the encounter in some way.
When I look at art, I am most interested in the idea of artist/ photographer taking responsibility for their role in the image, of owning who they are in the making.
MK: What mental preparations do you make to execute a particular shoot or project that you are excited about? Do things usually go the way you had planned?
LP: I think about what the model looks like, though often they show up in unexpected outfits, hair styles, etc. I think about where I might want to place them. Mostly, though, I just go into it and see where it goes. There are always so many surprises, that my plans eternally fall through. But this is what I love about the process - how surprising and unexpected things happen. I enjoy how weather and light are always a surprise and I have to improvise and accommodate. My shoots are about what happens when weather, light, color, clothing, model, how we both feel that day, come together, and what comes to mind as I look at her. Everything keeps changing and my job is to figure it out. At the same time, my palette is limited. I have always wanted to do the most with the least. It does not interest me to find new locations or beautiful props to photograph. I want to create something meaningful with whatever is in front of me. It’s like the old Pennsylvania Dutch motto “Bloom where you are planted”. This has always been my motto.
MK: In looking at your group portraits, there is a wonderful psychology that seems to occur in how everyone is arranged, most especially between gender and generation. Is this intentional? How much direction do you give them?
LP: There is so much information to mine when people are interacting. My photographs are a conversation, between the group/or individual I am photographing and myself.
I don’t give much direction. I am less interested in influencing them than seeing who they are and what happens to me during the process. I’m interested in letting be them exactly who they are, in making them comfortable, and what I can see. I make images of what I understand about who they are, who I become in the mix, and how the process makes me feel. When photographing people together, I watch to see who they are around the people they love the most. The underlying theme of all my work speaks to the complex concept of first love and how it affects relationships.
MK: In what ways have photographers of the past inspired or affected your images? Do you often find inspiration in the work of others?
LP: I tend to find inspiration in works that have multiple and complex layers that need to be ferreted out. Works that are about the artist’s relationship to the world, and about how they see and feel the world. I want to connect with a work of art on multiple levels, visual, conceptual, psychological. One artist whose work is important to me is Hiroshi Sugimoto. I like the way he works serially, where all the images are similar with subtle variations that the viewer must differentiate. I am drawn to the psychological and conceptual work of Sophie Calle. I am interested in work that startles me and makes me uncomfortable. I have recently been looking closely at Laurie Simmons’ work. I’m interested in the trajectory of her images. The conceptual nature of her work has become more complex, more personal, more specific. She incorporates different ways of working. I am most interested in how the artist grows, evolves. I want to be able to find a thread that was there from the beginning, and understand how work has become deeper, stronger, more intellectual and more connected to the artists’ personal nature and to humanity. I want to see work that has been delved into deeply and psychologically. Work that has gained strength, wisdom, maturity and become multi-faceted with time. I want it to affect me emotionally and intellectually. I want it to make me think and feel at once. I love when it makes me uncomfortable. And I want the work to be “unquiet”, in other words, I don’t want it to reveal itself wholly. I want to have to finish the sentence.
MK: Have there been any big successes or turning points in your career that have been beneficial to your work?
LP: In 2004 we converted one of our barns into a studio. This was a turning point as I felt that I needed to live up to the space. Previously I had a small studio in the house where I made small photographs. The larger space felt expansive and it inspired me to spread out and develop. Right after we finished the studio I began to work on The Mark of Abel. A number of things came together simultaneously, a larger studio, a sense that I needed to live up to the new studio, working in color for the first time and returning to portraiture after a long hiatus. Also, years of living away from an urban hub and my children becoming a little more independent at this time presented an opportunity to shoot without pressure to follow trends or external anxiety. I felt free and open to whatever happened. The Mark of Abel was initially an experiment in color film and a return to portraiture. The series flowed and happened at a time when this type of portraiture felt different. The acclaim I received was fortunate and fortuitous and was the foundation for newer work that continues, series by series, to go deeper and become more personal.
MK: With all of your success in photography, do you ever have moments of asking yourself if it would be beneficial to change direction with the work and try something different? Do you ever feel as though you’ve put yourself in a box with the style and aesthetic you’ve created?
LP: I have been thinking about this lately. I only make work that is an obsession for me, I would not make it otherwise. So, I don’t feel like I am in a box, but at the moment, I am finishing two projects and considering what to do next. I have been thinking about applying to residences which will inevitably, by the nature of being away from this property, change the work. I am going to be a “Visiting Artist” in Rome this spring. I am both excited and a little afraid, but I look forward to the chance to be in my head without distractions and let new things happen. I hope from this experience to find a new way to continue the thread I have been working through over the years but in a different form. I always say that each of us has only one story and over time we need to find different ways to tell it.
MK: You photograph your work using a large format camera and film. Is this technique and camera a factor in the making of your photographs, and was it a specific decision to go this route?
LP: I use film with both large and medium format cameras and the cameras I use do make a difference. But the difference for me is specifically in the making, in the process. Using film and using larger cameras force me to slow down, to feel my way through every shot. Not knowing what I have on film keeps my head in the game. It helps me build momentum. With film I don’t know if I have captured something, so I keep at it, trying new things. When I can see the results in front of me, digitally, it’s a different mindset. I love the magic and the mystery of film, and the larger format is key to my process.
MK: You’ve had a photographic relationship with food making appearances in your work over time. What has prompted this, and can this be seen as a transition to the more recent still life studies of chocolate?
LP: Using food has been an intuitive choice. Food is our first life-line to the world. It conjures notions of nurture, love, home, family, relationships. How we are fed, nourished, loved, makes all the difference. I am interested in these ideas of how we are brought into the world and how the experience shapes us. I am drawn to the natural world and as food is something natural (at least what I use) it seems to fit. Interestingly, food was a form of dismay for me as a child. I felt pressed to eat more than I wanted, I had no control over portions or choices. It seems fitting that I re-examine what it felt like. The recent “Chocolate Dark” work revisits a project from 2000-2002, a series titled “Chocolate, Hair, and Lint”. In the earlier project I collected chocolate, hair, and lint for two years. It was a conceptual project that considered my life as a woman, a mother, a wife, and an artist. Lint, hair, and chocolate sat side by side in an uncomfortable juxtaposition. The recent series feels bolder, more vibrant. Emotional growth is the good part about getting older.
MK: Anyone working in an artistic field has matured and grown over time. Is there anything you’ve discovered lately that you’d like people to know about you or your creative process?
LP: I have gained a lot of confidence through the process. Making work involves having to believe in yourself and in your choices. Many things I doubted about myself in the past have found themselves to be positive forces in my work and in my life. I’ve learned that you have to trust yourself, your intuition, the way you look at the world. I used to feel I had to hide my feelings, that they would not be acceptable, but making art has shown me that the clearer I understand and present my own feelings, the more people understand me and my work. The process has helped me grow and accept things about myself I used to hide. It’s been a pleasure and continues to teach me things.
MK: I recently viewed a talk you had done at the School of Visual Arts in NYC, so I know that you are involved with helping students grow into their own process. In speaking to future generations of photographers, do you have any words of wisdom to those setting out to make their own mark in the photographic world?
LP: I always tell them to trust in themselves. You have to know what’s going on out there, art-wise and world-wise. Be aware but do your own thing. Look, listen, and continue to learn in a way that makes sense to you. Listen to criticism but know who to listen to. There is a lot of bad advice out there too. You can always learn something from every interaction, even from bad advice. It just may not be what the teller had in mind. Trust your intuition. Trust what you know. Believe in yourself, but don’t be delusional. If you are going to make art, it should be the most personal work you can make. It should be work that only you could make. It should be work that no one else could make.
MK: Lastly, how do you see your work progressing into the future? Do you have anything new you are currently working on that we should be on the lookout for?
LP: I recently began incorporating video into my work and I am excited to push it further. The video pieces are an extension of my portraiture work. They feel more intimate, more raw and more uncomfortable. I want to take what I’ve already done, what I’ve learned and push it. The themes don’t change, but they get deeper and I want to try a different form. As I mentioned previously, I’ll be in Rome for a month this spring, out of my element, away from my playground. I’ll have to make new choices. I imagine the inspiration will come to me and the form will present itself in a new way.
You can find more of Lydia's work at her website here.