R: These are your most recent works?
S: Not all of these are done. This one isn’t done.
R: Tell me why it isn’t done.
S: When I paint I’m after a particular kind of surface. The edges of my paintings are something that I think are the personality of the painting; the way the paint is thick as it comes over the edge because I apply so many layers. I haven’t applied too many layers to this, I’ve only painted it once. I’m striving for a process where I choose 4 colours and that’s the painting. This piece could work, but to me it doesn’t feel done.
R: I’m thinking about Abstraction. In some cases it’s seen as a reaction against representation, and in others its driven by process and a series of decisions.
S: The second is where I lie. That is what I do, it’s very formal and procedural. I’m just thinking about the surface, the paint, the paint as a material, as well as a subject, which includes colour. Not everyone is going to think that is enough. Some people search for more. I’m asking people really to look at the paint and the surface, and what fascinates me is to try and evoke, not a meaning, but what I do find is that when a painting does work for people they can connect it to a memory of a place, which is to me is so fascinating, because it’s a circle, nothing more. It’s only a circle and I’ve chosen 3 colours, that’s it. When the paintings work somehow people find more. People also appreciate them without finding anything more, just appreciating the shapes and the colours, and that’s also fine.
R: What jumps out at me is that in some ways they remind of emojis, or symbols, because they’re so graphic, like flags.
S: Yes! I want to talk about that. Look at the earlier building paintings. There’s a graphic quality to my work, there always have been. I’m so happy you touched on flags because I’m fascinated by them, I always memorize them when the Olympics come, because they are so sharp and they’re loaded with meaning for people as well. They’re just bands of colour and they represent so much. This painting takes colours from an African flag. I’m interested in people’s relationship to colour. People have a specific relationship to colour, even from the time they are kids, that never leaves us.
R: It’s interesting to think about Abstraction in relation to representation in this context, because symbols are different. They exist in a different theoretical space. Symbols by definition provoke bodily reactions, and you project your hopes, desires and feelings onto them.
S: That’s kind of fascinating, also applied to flags, because they have clear symbols, a circle can be a sun, for example. Perhaps that’s a direction I can take my paintings further, making my
own symbols. I’m still using stripes, but when I moved from doing stripes to circles people really attached comments to those paintings. I thought ok, I’m taking things further, it’s not just colour and stripes, I’ve moved somewhere new. It was a reaction I was really intrigued by.
R: When I look at them, I almost see a kind of personality, or character. Where does that impression come from?
S: Yeah! But also, someone else might walk right by it, have a totally different experience, it’s also just a circle.
R: So these circles are really experimental for you. Do you only work on canvas?
S: I’m interested in the sculptural quality to the painting. These here are oil paintings on panel, adding a block element to them, especially when you see them all together. I want to emphasize that more, an installation element. I’ve been moving into Formalism which gives me a great kind of freedom, that I didn’t feel with still life or portraiture.
R: Talk me through your process of making these new paintings.
S: First I look at a lot of other paintings. I also look at a lot of textiles. When I first started to do abstract work with busier patterns, I was really interested in these Gee’s Bend quilts, which seemed to have a real spontaneity to them, but I found the quilts to be equally important to looking at paintings.
R: Something related to what we’ve been talking about is that quilts were also used for messages. They were used in the Underground Railroad as maps for people to find their way along the trail. There would be arrows and secret patterns in blankets hung out on fences and laundry lines that would indicate a house was a safe place to stay.
S: They’re so loaded actually. Interesting. That brings us back to symbols. So I’ll look at these textiles and paintings, and my painting will start as an idea for a pattern and colour. There is a spontaneous element even though these are the most planned. Aside from having a picture to look at for inspiration, I really didn’t know how these were going to end up. I may have a pretty close idea of what I want to grasp. People often ask me if there is a particular emotion I want to convey or something like that and the answer is no. But I do hope that they can evoke an emotion. That’s why I don’t title them. The actual combination of colour takes a long time for me to be happy with. Some of them have plenty of layers. I want there to be a little bit more when you get up close. You can see my thought process. You can see I’ve reconsidered things, and for me that’s an important part of the painting.
It’s very satisfying for me to have an idea, an abstract picture, and just make it. It feels like freedom, “This is what I want to do, this is what I did.”
R: Can I ask you about the new sculptures you’ve been making?
S: They’re sculptures with a lot of paint on them. They have a lot to do with the paintings. They’re totally in process. I’m a painter, so when I see objects my first reaction is to paint. It’s natural for me to want to paint over them. I think aesthetically bottles are fascinating, but ultimately these are all about colour and simplicity. This reminds me of as a kid, you know those plastic toys, Fischer Price, stuff you react to when you’re really young.
R: It’s interesting to me that it’s still a similar procedure where you make pre-determined decisions. You collect the objects, choose the colour, and apply them to the form, which in some ways is the same logic as the paintings, it’s just a different base.
S: I see them as very similar. I’m not as excited about painting a bottle, which is why this not quite done, I’m just thinking about painting every-day objects, like in Pop Art.
R: This is an opportunity to segue into asking you about Jasper Johns, thinking about his painting on top of every-day objects. He also used symbols. I remember in art history my professor lecturing that Jasper Johns was gay, and that his images were all codes for speaking about his identity. Similarly for Robert Rauschenberg, although his bisexuality is referenced often despite his being married to women. In years following that lecture any time I’d come across writing about Jasper Johns I’d never see reference to his sexual identity. So all that to ask you does your being queer come into your painting? Is it inspiration or do you perceive it as separate?
S: I think it’s separate. Some days I wish I had more of an intense answer. It’s separate. Does being gay even have to come into my work now? It’s no secret. This is a sign of how much progress has been made, it’s a privilege to be able to take this position.
R: Coming back to the question of representation, if you’re not working in that theoretical space then can one even bring sexual identity into the work? Representation and identity are intrinsically linked. So if you’re working with symbols you’re actually in a space of play, putting materials and objects into play.
S: I think this is a bit of a lightbulb moment than can be pushed further.
S: I don’t know in terms of personality how it works. These paintings are me. Painting is such a profound extension of a person and their personality and the way they experience the world. Even though I’m not doing representational work somehow things all around me spark ideas. It’s difficult to describe.
R: It’s odd to be asked to take a stance and say something is or is not part of the work, separating it out.
S: Yeah, I mean, we’re absorbing, dissecting, re-creating the world around us all the time, of course it’s going to show up in the work somehow. Maybe that’s why choosing the colours is such an important part for me. I don’t know what it means, but I can’t imagine that ever ending, choosing colour as my subject matter.
R: Your practice has been talked about previously as being connected to other local histories of Abstraction like Bob Christie, William Perehudoff and Eli Bornstein, more recently Jessica Eaton’s photography, and they’re all prairie-born artists who are obsessed with light and how light creates colour. Bornstein works with paint and Eaton works with film. I’m wondering if you’re referencing the history of that aesthetic. It seems to me you’re thinking about the materiality of the paint, rather than light per se. Tell me about how you choose your colours and how it relates to the properties of the paint.
S: Oil paint is a rich medium. I’ve been painting for 17 years, I’ve been choosing colour for a long time. It’s not about what I love in a combination, it’s about, sometimes, trying out an intention. I don’t want to choose colours that are overly superficial or predictable. I want something that is more subtly confusing, like colours you might think don’t go together, or colours that look kind of just look pleasing in a surprising way. This painting here would be a good example. I don’t even know if I like these colours together, do they really go together? I don’t know, maybe not. I’m not after brightness, happiness, or a pleasing experience. I’m after something more vague, subtle. I have to tweak it all the time. I do this one day and I think it looks great, because the painting is wet, and then a couple of days later the colour is darker, it just doesn’t look as juicy, or vital, so I have to go back and find a balance that I think is not superficial.
R: It’s a play of the relationships of the colours to themselves.
S: Yes, exactly. This looks like black far away, but then you get up closer and it’s not actually black. The colour is more than what it initially appears.
R: So you’re playing with perception.
S: Absolutely. As you get up closer you also notice these details, like what I was saying about the edges, or the roughness, so it’s a new realization that makes the painting more interesting. People see paintings in different light, for example. I don’t want people to see my paintings as just blocks of colour, I think that’s fine, but I want there to be more to it.
R: It makes me think about how there’s this new technology being used to shoot x-rays into historic paintings to figure out the layers and the process of making them. It can now be done with even more detail. So conservators and art historians will digitally peel back the layers of a painting and draw inferences about the painter’s life, saying things like “Oh look this hand was over on the left, but now it’s over here, so therefore the painter must have been feeling....”
S: I watch a lot of art history shows and I really like the ones where they have to do an x-ray to figure out if a person is actually the real artist, and that’s something they discover by looking through the layers of a painting. The backs of paintings are also fascinating, saying where the painting has travelled, provenance, things like that.
R: With the benefit of hindsight now, do you have insight about what made you make your transition into Abstraction?
S: I’ve always loved shapes. A building is made up of a group of shapes. I just wanted to be free, not tied to representation, I just wanted to use line. I was working representationally after university, with all these great examples around me in Saskatoon. You see Pereheudoff’s work everywhere, I’m lucky to know Bob Christie. Art Placement shows such strong work, so it’s not like these paintings came out of nowhere. I’ve been influenced by things indirectly without even being able to articulate it. I’ll paint something that I think is finished, and then by chance I’ll see a Pereheudoff panting that is new to me, and they’ll look very similar. I think that’s so interesting. We’ve arrived at a very similar image without my having seen the original. Our work is in conversation with each other.
R: So to close, I’ve been reading a book called The Art of Prudence by Balthasar Gracian, a Spanish clergyman and moralist who wrote using a pseudonym, and he says that, “Fame was and is the sister of giants. She works through extremes. Monsters and prodigies are either abhorred or applauded.” If you were to be pursuing fame would you want to be famous for being a monster or a prodigy?
S: Oh. Well, monster doesn’t really describe me well, so prodigy, I guess. Yeah, I’d like to be applauded.
R: For prodigious technique.
S: Absolutely, yes.
B: Thanks for making the time to talk with me today, George. You're known for your high-end advertising and fashion spreads, and your portraits of Hollywood stars, but you've also established a fine arts practice. Where do those intersect?
G: I always see them as going in tandem. Everything to me in my photography and my career
one often segues off the other. After graduating from college in the early 1980's out at the Art Center in Pasadena I started doing fashion, working in Europe, in Paris and then coming to New York. That continued until the 1990's, and then I was doing album covers, but I wasn't doing a lot of actresses and actors at that point. I guess it was the way the industry was going. People started using celebrities as supermodels then, for magazine covers, for fashion editorials. So I moved into that, with some early assignments with Brad Pitt, with Madonna, and then eventually one day I woke up, and most of what I was shooting was celebrities. Editorials based more on portraits than fashion, which was fine by me because I ultimately found that to be more interesting.
B: You also worked under Helmut Newton early on, didn't you?
G: Yes, and he obviously greatly inspired me. He realized he was shooting a tool catalog, and those were photos that could someday end up in a museum--and they have. He didn't draw a line down his practice, he approached everything as though it was his own work, as though some day it might have that fine art quality. That's something that always stuck with me. I always try to do my own photos. Even in recent shows, work I did for magazine and commercial clients does end up on gallery walls. It goes together. It gives you access. These assignments, whether they're editorial or advertising, they give you a unique access to subjects you wouldn't normally address.
B: When you were starting out, did you see it that way? Were you just looking for a career, or did you always know you wanted a studio practice aspect in your work?
G: Originally when I went to school I wanted to be a photojournalist. I consider myself to be kind of one really. I love that aspect of photography. But when I went to school, I started learning more about lighting, and working in the studio, and then working with Helmut, I kind of unlearned everything I learned in school. I knew I liked fashion, I knew I liked working with celebrities, and I assisted him on those kinds of jobs. So I pursued that in Milan, and then Paris, and then New York. By the '90s, it all ran together. It was in the late 1980's I started doing my fine art nudes.
B: What made you start work on that series?
G: In the early 1980s there was a group of us in New York who lived downtown, all photographers, and we called ourselves the Cauldron. Most of us were friends from the Art Center and we got together because even though we were all commercial photographers--advertising, editorial, portraits, whatever--we realized we still wanted to pursue our art work. We started meeting every week, each doing personal work. It couldn't be something done on the job, or something old, it had to be new, specifically for this group. And we all started producing really interesting bodies of work from this. There was the great still life photographer James Wojcik, Charles Purvis, Mark Arbeit who assisted Helmut along with me. That's when I started shooting the nudes in earnest. In reality I had been shooting them since the late '70s, but I started to really produce a body of that work which started to move towards exhibitions. Now I've been doing them for forty years. I guess one of the beautiful things about this kind of thing, flying around the world to shoot in exotic locations, having these models with stylists and hair and makeup teams, was to take advantage of those circumstances, and if you had free time, to do some of your own work. Which is something Helmut did as well, he always would try to get the assignment, please the client, but then do something for himself on the side. Which is something I still do, since you know you're never going to be in these places again. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It's harder with the celebrities--you have people around, entourages, everyone watching the clock. And with social media, people are more cautious, everything is instantaneous. There's no shoot, develop, look, put it away. Things are transmitted instantly now.
B: Tell me more about the relationship between your work in fashion and your nudes. With fashion photography, it seems like you're almost using the body as armature, versus the nudes being about the body itself in space.
G: Well, in school, everything was about still lives at first. Very classic bootcamp style training. Everything was about the ball, the cube, and the cylinder; and how to light that. And really, the body is a combination of all of those. When you're shooting fashion, it's like a still life, you have to respond to how the light makes the body and the face look, but also the garment, how it shows, how it hangs. The model is obviously helping a lot, they move well, they know how to find the light, and they kind of take care of you in that way. Then comes your direction, getting them to emote, working in all lighting conditions--you can't always have studio light, or the magic light at the end of the day, sometimes you're shooting in the middle of the afternoon--to handle all the technicles. But I also like to direct a lot, I'm very aware of body language. I like to shoot everything as though I'm shooting a portrait. Nude or clothed, there's so much said by the way a model stands or sits. Just the body itself when shooting a nude, it becomes timeless. Hairstyle or makeup is the only thing that can potentially date it. If you're in the middle of the woods or the desert, with a body, that's pretty timeless. You can look back and say there were more rubenesque models at one period, and heroin chic was more popular in that period, but the first thing, the thing that informs my work, is that it's a portrait. The first thing I see is the face, then the body, then the clothes. That's my training, you want it to look good, but you want it to look interesting. And it goes first from the face. So in that regard, working with the nude informs working with fashion, it's like learning figure drawing, or like a doctor working on a cadaver, it's foundational knowledge. In turn that allows you to do well photographing not just someone who's a trained model, it teaches how to photograph someone who is maybe a little uncomfortable, or stiff, and how to use that. That's what makes photography so interesting, it's something different every time you shoot.
B: It seems that fluidity is key to photography in more than just practice. It's hard to think of a medium that's changed more in terms of process and format than photography has in the last generation.
G: Absolutely. When I started out it was completely analogue. People started to talk about digital, but no one really took it seriously at first. Then clients wanted to embrace the early digital technology, and it was difficult in the beginning, because everyone wanted to cover everything both ways. The workflow became very confusing. Then it switched fully to digital, and analogue shoots became a specialty. When I hear about young photographers discovering film, it's funny. When they label things as "shot on film" as a special designation, it's like, that's all there was. But I was an early adopter, I wasn't one of those photographers tha said, "I only shoot film, period." I saw the writing on the wall. People who did hand retouching, people who didn't embrace photoshop, airbrushers, they became dinosaurs, and I didn't want to be like that. I still shoot a lot of film, especially in my personal work, because I like the pace and the quality of it, but I'm equally proficient with digital.
B: What has the impact been on your commercial work?
G: When you're on a shoot, and there are all these people standing around, and you hear comments, or you hear complete silence as you shoot, it's like being in the kitchen and everyone is tasting the food as you cook it. It's not done yet, what they're experiencing isn't a finished product. In the old days, you took a polaroid, looked at it, stuck it in your pocket, and then you'd shoot. Then it would be processed, and it'd be like a birthday present every time, getting that yellow and red box back from Kodak full of contact sheets. Before social media, before everyone shot and posted selfies and everything else, you really had to work and form and sustain relationships to find the right models. You'd have trust, you'd share contact prints by mail or fedex. It wasn't like it is now, people shooting with their iphones over your shoulder while you shoot, things appearing online before you even see your own shots, before the work is finished. There was more intimacy, and more trust before. I miss that part of it.
B: There have been changes beyond just the workflow in recent years.
G: Of course, we've had things like the MeToo movement--necessary things--that make it such a different time now. And global events, 9/11, the pandemic, things like that change everything, in every industry. And social media was a revolution in photography. People are bombarded by visual culture, by movement. There's so much talent there too, and now everyone's a photographer in a way. But for me it's still about craft. I'm open to what's happening now, but it's slippery.
B: I know you also teach and have always worked with young photographers. What is it like to work with students who come in having these preconceived notions and personal relationships to photography by virtue of carrying around a camera in their pocket everyday?
Have standards in practice changed as well? Whereas in the past, you might have been taught that a classic fashion model has a certain look and a certain build, and you would focus on learning how to work with that, when now it's more common to see a diverse range of models? Is it different than when you were in school learning purely about the craft of photography?
G: That's a great question. I've been teaching a long time, and in the last five years, I've been teaching my own workshops. In the beginning, it was analog, it was all about technical craft, for the most part. Some workshops are on the portrait, some on fashion and beauty, some on the business of photography. Often it's on the nude figure. The demographic changes from course to course. Early on, students were more concerned with learning technique and lighting, and we would just touch on things on the business end. As far as models go, I've always loved to photograph all different body shapes, I was never interested in just one kind of model. Of course, fashion models back in the 80s and 90s used to be taller and skinnier and then people like Kate Moss came in who was shorter, and things slowly began to change. Now it's very, very diverse in terms of body type and in terms of ethnicity, which is great! And in my workshops now, I often have a younger demographic. And students would ask me, "can I just bring my iphone to class?" and I always say, if that's all you haven that's fine. I'll teach everything from how to shoot with an 8x10 view camera to an iphone. They're all tools. It's really about your eye, how you understand light. But I wrestled with that at first, thinking, maybe they should at least shoot on a DSLR, but then I thought, why limit it like that? You can take really great photos with an iphone, it's an important tool now. You can go out and play tennis with the best tennis player in the world, and make them play with the cheapest racket, and they're still going to beat you. When you're talented, you're talented, and good tools can make you even better, but you'll make good work with whatever you have to work with.
B: How have the conversations in workshops changed with these developments?
G: There's a lot more discussion now, about what's fine art? What's pornography? Questions of society, and perception, and new moral standards. I think it's really good that it comes out in critique, that we talk about respect now, and you didn't see that ten or twenty years ago so much.
B: It seems like those are broad social changes felt across every industry, not just photographer.
G: Absolutely. I've worked a great deal in Europe and things are different there than in the states. And the criticism of work can be very different, based on social norms, based on the culture where the work is being shown.
B: Speaking of cultural reception, especially in the context of popular culture, I wanted to ask you about your book, Holz Hollywood: Thirty Years of Portraits. What led you to make this book? Why this subset of photographs?
G: Originally it was going to be Twenty-five Years of Portraits but then it took five years to make. I was shooting all the time still, so it became Thirty. There was a lot of discussion as to if I should make my first monograph a book of nudes, or celebrity portraits. I thought of doing a combination, but I decided this needed to be on its own. Enough time has passed, that looking back, you can take a look at things and say, "yes, that's an iconic portrait." People change, their careers shange, you need time to determine what has staying power. It's hard going through 500 different analog sessions, and making selections, and deciding what goes into a book. But the nudes will have their own book, coming out in probably 2022.
B: Will that cover a similar period in your career?
G: Yes, around forty years.
B: Companion volumes.
G: Yes, and potentially a second, updated edition of Holz Hollywood, might come out too. You know from curating shows or working on books what that involves, and it's always evolving.
B: A book with that kind of scope taking five years is no surprise, really.
G: Some people think that's a long time. My designer did, but it does take time. I don't think of them as retrospectives, though, I'm still doing so much work. I could go ahead with another book that covers that same period, really. I'm always having to go back into my archives. Your eye changes with time. You look at an image and say, "Why didn't I put this in the book? How could I pass over this?" but you didn't see it the same way five years ago. Sometimes the best things end up on the cutting room floor.
B: What else is on deck for you?
G: The book of nudes is slated for 2022, but the pandemic has delayed it some. I have a few exhibitions in their early stages in Europe, but again, with the galleries closed, it's not a certain thing. We're in quarantine-light now, so right now things are opening back up, but I still can't travel outside the states. So it's all a big question mark for now. Shows that have been booked years in advance, shows were extended or delayed, there's a lot of uncertainty. Even with production. People working on skeleton crews, thinking, how do we reopen and reopen safely. People went bankrupt, people closed, people were laid off. We're picking up the pieces, seeing where we're at. Hopefully the editorial and commercial assignments can safely resume.
B: I imagine there's no way for a team to be hands-off while doing a fashion shoot.
G: I'm fortunate I live on a farm in upstate New York with my family. We have a lot of area, and my office and studio are on site. I was able to still do a workshop in August, though we had to cancel June. It was difficult, we often have a lot of people from out of state. People had to quarantine when they arrived in the state. We lost our international students. We were able to do it all outside, all socially distant, following all covid protocols. Designers sent us their clothes, and we were able to do the rest all in-house. Local models, on site production. My son, a filmmaker, was able to help us work things out. We may not know when this thing will be over. People won't be packing into galleries in Tribeca on hot summer nights for along time.
B: It seems like everyone is at a point where they're past the point of just trying to get by, and they're committed to developing sustainable long term alternative models, since we really don't have any idea how long this will last.
G: I've developed some interesting ways to do remote shoots. A friend of mine in Antwerp was expecting a baby, and wanted me to shoot her out in the forest while she was still pregnant, and I was able to do that with the help of an on-site assistant. He was the cameraman. It was a cool experience. Not the same as being there, but pretty close. Like working with a DP as a director. People are shooting with drones, finding new ways. Photography, especially what I do, with portraits, whether actors or personal work, there's a safe way to do it. You can shoot 8-to-10 feet away from someone. And being able to be working outside in spring and summer is great. But people who live places like you and I live--we've been working outside, we've been at outside cafes, I'm sure you've been enjoying the lake there in Chicago, but once we're all inside again in the winter, it'll be a big change.
B: There's still a lot to navigate ahead of us. But it seems to be pushing us towards asking questions like, how do you do a remote shoot? It's providing an opportunity to advance new methods of working that otherwise may not have been explored.
G: A year ago I wouldn't have fathomed doing a remote shoot. But photography has always been about adaptability. It's the nature of the business. You always have to be ready to adapt.