In Conversation with George Pitts
Text by Sabrina Tamar
George Pitts is a man of many talents. A painter-turned photographer, a professor, as well as an accomplished writer and poet, he is known for his provocative and intimate portraits of women. Managing Editor Sabrina Tamar spoke with George about what these qualities represent for him as an artist and why the erotic is so controversial.
Sabrina Tamar: What is your personal daily ritual?
George Pitts: I wake up as early as is possible, and I meditate. The practice enables me to move more smoothly toward any work that lies ahead, whether it’s a task that's small, or momentous. I prefer to write with a morning mind, with little literally on my mind, when it isn't teeming with thought. For instance, I'm starting this piece in the early morning, but only after meditating a little while. It helps immeasurably, especially if the previous day had a heavy workload.
ST: What about your creative process? Do you find there is a general pattern in how you plan, execute, and edit your shoots?
GP: Once a creative commitment has been made, planning occurs at different frequencies: often beginning with entering crucial notes in my moleskin notebook, that once recorded frees me up to daydream on and off amid the tumult of any day. The daydreaming incrementally leads me to ideas that I may execute, or may explore at a later time with a more appropriate subject. Since I more often photograph women that I've had some minimal or substantial correspondence with, yet haven't met, it's not uncommon for me to abandon those ideas I've written down, in order to witness the subject more freshly on that day during those hours of shooting. It more often occurs with women who contacted me, who know some portion of my work, who one can assume are most receptive to being pictured in the vein of a previously done picture. Another facet of this work is the photography I do with subjects who I've photographed over the course of years, which can number beyond 20 or more shoots; and those women that I photograph with that degree of frequency, lead their own lives, give birth to children, lose or gain weight, engage in their own brand of living and being, often with partners lovers or husbands, and they bring their lives respectively, to the shoots, which I feel intuitively, and proceed from there with our next shoot.
The editing begins in camera during the photo shoot, in the photographs I either ignore taking, or when a moment bears down on me during the witnessing, that impels me to shoot in earnest. There's no formula, but I have noticed that shooting is also a form of editing, most clearly in what I pass on, or when a moment can be sustained indefinitely that leads to pictures that feel inevitable. Then there's the editing that happens officially when I mark the contact sheets; and this is a methodical ritual wherein I do an edit as many as 4 or 5 times before making Scans of the choice frames.
ST: You were a painter before you were a photographer. Do you feel this background influenced your work? Did you work with similar subject matter as you do today?
GP: As a painter, I began with the human figure, and was eventually talked out of continuing with the figure in behalf of pure abstraction which was typically endorsed by my college teachers, who were also artists. And over time I painted abstract paintings for about 15 years; but covertly I recognized that I was drawing from nature or a longing for figurative manifestations to become more apparent beneath the surface of the abstract work. I broke with abstraction once I lived on my own in NYC; in fact I broke with a number of things in hindsight including the fear of not being sufficiently modernist as a result of my interest in painting women and sexuality, which only returned very gradually over another decade. Before then I became a writer somehow, pouring myself into a complicated form of poetry that reconciled serpentine prose with the more concentrated levels of meaning implicit in poetry. At that time I was reading Wallace Stevens, Shakespeare, Djuna Barnes, Samuel Beckett, Susan Sontag, William Burroughs, the French authors Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, and Marguerite Duras; also the work of John Ashbery, who was very supportive in his openness to reading my work. I almost thought that I'd never return to a primarily visual medium; but writing in hindsight became the transitional method, which welcomed back the figure, the gravitation toward representing sexuality, the wrestling with issues of beauty and art, those facets of experience common to many of us, that had been officially expelled from Modernist abstract painting in behalf of a crisis sublimation that for me, in hindsight, was a smug theoretical aversion to doing representational painting. Adulthood often turns out to be an unlearning of things one just doesn't need to do, or believe in. I drank the Kool-Aid for a while, but since it brought little that was genuinely art to me, I simply stopped painting until I had the means to paint large scale again with the original ambitions I had harbored since my teenage years. No doubt the whole experience was invaluable, and toughened me up, especially mentally; but I never let theorists influence me to this degree any longer; where I would abandon my truest concerns as if they were merely "trends." In my relatively short temporal return to Painting, I then painted the female figure with a then shocking quotient of eroticism infused with considerable spatial abstraction. I was able to exhibit or publish some fraction of that work, predominantly in Group shows, Drawing shows, and large size Art & Culture magazines, while continuing to write literature. Jumping ahead now to the 1990s, I was hired as the Photography Director of VIBE magazine; and it was then that I returned to Photography, which I'd been taught in prep school but never regarded as seriously as I did Painting until then. The example of those gifted photographers that I hired, and my desire to make up for lost time, led me to take up the camera, which gave me more pleasure than any other art form, but drew on all my previous creative pursuits.
ST: It’s no secret that the women in your images are one of the identifying characteristics of your work. How do you define a muse? Is a muse for you inherently a female subject?
GP: I don't routinely think about whether I have a Muse. But ironically, this question was also raised by another female editor, so I'm concluding that the notion of a Muse is of particular interest to women, and that my work suggests that there is a Muse figure who informs the nature of my photographs.
I would say no, a Muse isn't inherently a female subject, and men are just as likely to conceive of someone of either gender who serves as a Muse. I'd like to think that my work extends a blanket sentiment of reverence toward all the subjects I'm fortunate to photograph. Yet because the nature of my photographs vary in aesthetic intention, I don't claim that all my pictures suggest an identification with women as the Muse.
ST: How well do you get to know your subjects before you shoot?
GP: Sometimes conversations with a subject take up more time than I realized; but these exchanges can enable both of us to get to know each other a bit before doing a shoot. Establishing a trust via the examples of my previous work, usually is enough to conduct a successful shoot. One of the women, Renee, who you might perceive as a 'Muse' figure, because I've photographed her so many times, told me straight up that she didn't want to talk at all in advance of our first shoot. It was refreshing to hear her say that, and it made me laugh.
ST: “Erotic photography” has always struck me as a problematic term. Is eroticism something you seek to portray in your nudes? For me, when I look at them they are more intimate, personally biographical to each subject. Do you feel the eroticism is something you place there or is it inherent in the individual models you choose? Or is a projection from the viewer?
GP: An artist can impart a quality of eroticism head-on in a picture; but I tend to be suspicious if that is the overriding sensation. I like the reading that you discern in my work; and I find it quite helpful. The singlemindedness toward the erotic, that is palpable in say, the work of Hans Bellmer, is interesting and has been quite influential, but the effort to sustain this level of intensity, would never be wholly appropriate for the work that I do. To fully emulate Bellmer's inspired sense of obsession, would omit too many creative possibilities that I cherish. A lightness of touch, and an avid interest in the myriad manifestations of feeling, beauty, and style have a greater and more contemporary hold on me, that lead me to embrace chance and deliberation in equal measure. I've found that certain pictures are only possible if one remains visually alert to the nuances of behavior exhibited by the model, and her gestures rarely conform to the fixed stereotypes of eroticism, yet there is much that then occurs which is beautiful, disarming, sensually luscious, and indescribable in vernacular speech.
Of course some models are naturally passionate and demonstrative, and that can be fun to work with; but I never see such behavior as 'easy' to capture. A heated, consciously sexy play of behavior can be an intoxicating performance to witness; yet capturing such moments has its own set of technical demands, should one endeavor to take a good picture.
Eroticism can often be the sole objective pursued by a man; but I would guess not by a female artist. Why is that so? Some of my female students have pointed out this dilemma to me; that they can smell or intuit when objectification is all there is to read. Some theorize that these urges are so deeply embedded in male consciousness that the effects of this degree of conditioning are impossible to avoid or fully eliminate. The French female director, Catherine Breillat, has a handle on issues of this kind, particularly in her film, "Anatomy Of Hell," which explores philosophically and literally what misogyny can look like. It's a film that is hard to dismiss; and the director's dry investigative speculations lean toward a mutual disgust between the genders. But at the same time her directorial spin feels so deeply subjective, that I sense she's contriving a worst case scenario of 'difference' in order to show an eternal misunderstanding between the sexes.
ST: In your own terms, what is the difference between the erotic and the obscene?
GP: Historically, the obscene is something of a sliding door. Both Egon Schiele and Hans Bellmer were accused of obscenity before their work entered the canon of great Art. The erotic is such a broad term that it's difficult to say what it denotes.
ST: You are a male and a photographer. What are your opinions on the male gaze? For instance, when I see the last image of the red-haired model with baguettes beneath her arms, I do not have the impression she is powerless or submissive. Rather I felt she was confronting the viewer, challenging our expectations of sexuality. How do you preserve individuality or capture a sense of the subject’s power or eschew the societal norms of femininity, sexuality, and objectification?
GP: Societal norms of femininity and sexuality are always shifting; and we live in an era where objectification can be applied to virtually anything, and is. It can appear self-important or shrill to believe that one is transgressing the perceived limits of cultural taste, especially when so many expressions and aesthetics are tolerated in the Arts. I suppose individuality is the more difficult stance to uphold, because it entails integrity and a distinctive or authentic style. Capturing the subject's power is an honorable goal, but this urge emanates from within the artist, and couldn't be entirely conscious, because one is a conduit for the ideas that covet the subject. In these almost metaphysical occasions, the artist can rise to the level of their deepest conviction, and with luck, illuminate the true power or beauty of the model. But as you can tell here, it is not the easiest thing to talk about with lucidity.
Your characterization and defense of the "baguettes" picture is agreeable to me, because the beauty I feel I arrived at was not premeditated, but was the result of an intense form of collaboration that was spontaneous and lasted about 10 minutes at best.
ST: For me, there is also fine balance in your work between vulnerability and power. Is this a duality you intentionally desire your work to exude?
GP: Yes; although it hasn't been until now, that I would choose the word "power" in the declaration of my objectives. There is such a density of presence when representing a woman in her respective guises. Is it any wonder that it can be daunting to explore photography toward this end? It can so easily be perceived as a kind of folly, or inverted form of hubris.
ST: “Inverted hubris” is incredibly poetic, but accurate, way of describing the risk inherent in the type of work you do. Looking beyond your own photography, what is a lost art-form you would like to see resurrected?
GP: Just a quality of profundity that is seen (and felt) without cynicism, or resentment.