Conversation with Vera Saltzman

Vera Saltzman is one of the three winners of our 2HeadS contest: Self-Portrait, so here we are having a very pleasant conversation: Enjoy Vera’s wonderful words, worlds and works.

by Vera Saltzman

by Vera Saltzman – self portrait winner at 2HeadS contest

2HeadS – I want to start this conversation picking up your surname Saltzman, which as far as I know has a Jewish origin, and means the man of the saltz, being saltz related to the art of archery, so the archer or the one who uses the bow. In your case you use the camera and not the bow to shoot. Don’t know if you ever read a wonderful short book called “Zen in The Art of Archery” by Eugen Herrigel, but would love to hear your own thoughts on this relation.

VeraS – Wow, that is really interesting about my name. I didn’t know all of this. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about Buddhism or the book you reference either, but I did find a copy on line. I think anything that someone finds peace of mind through is spiritual. For some, photography will serve this purpose. I’m not sure about the idea of muscle repetition using the camera leading to some higher level of spiritualism. This is what I can tell you about my own experience though with photography.  I joined a photo club once. While I met numerous kind and sharing photographers, learned some technical skills, and participated in group outings, I quickly learned I’m not a shutter bug and I really don’t like taking thousands of photos.  Though I’m very much an extrovert, photography is a time of solitude for me, a time when I “zone out”. I believe there is something very therapeutic about photography.  I walk the streets or hunker down in my basement studio for hours working on a shoot or post producing, lost in time and for once comfortable with being alone. I think when I’m less worried or forget about f/stops and lenses and so on, I create some of my more compelling images.  I definitely haven’t become “one with the camera” yet. I’m not where I want to be technically.  I don’t know if I need to be in order find peace and fulfillment through photography. There is more to photography than muscle memory. Yes, there is definitely one less thing to think about if you have control of the camera, but I don’t think it is that straight forward. I know some who tell me I should never admit my shortcomings in an interview, but I’m being totally honest here. My days of being a student have only just begun. I’ve so much to learn. This is one of the reasons why I’m so fortunate to have made contact with you and appreciate how you provide so many ongoing learning opportunities.

2HeadS – In this book “Zen in the Art of Archery”, Herrigel wrote at certain point: “What the relation might be between the purposeless waiting-capacity and the loosing of the shot at the right moment, when the tension spontaneously fulfilled itself?” When you’re shooting someone’s portrait, how do you know when this tension is fulfilled?

VeraS – I studied under Michael Tardioli, the Director of the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa (SPAO). When I first met Michael at a presentation of his portraiture work, he told the group he took very few images. I left thinking, wow, I don’t have to take a million photos to be a photographer.  I always felt overwhelmed by that approach and I loved Michael’s work. This encounter led me to the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa to study in their portfolio development program.  Now, when I shoot a portrait, I enjoy working quietly with an assistant, if I’m lucky, and the subject. I prefer to shoot film, using either my hasselblad, 4×5 or borrowed 8×10. It not only slows me down but the expectation of the sitter changes. The mood changes from something that feels frantic or manic to me, to contemplative.  I now know I only have a limited number of shots to get it. To get “it”. How do I know? I’m not sure I can put it into words. Perhaps it’s something intuitive, but I seem to finish the role of film regardless. I believe when I shoot film more time is spent looking at the person, studying their face and expression, the movement of their hands, angle of their bodies. I’m more methodical, disciplined. Often the sitter is a little thrown by this. It’s a different style of work than what they might be expecting. Nothing rapid is happening. I’m not shooting for “America’s Next Top Model”. I’m asking them to move ever so slightly, waiting. This can be difficult. Sometimes after shooting a frame I immediately think, why did I do that. I fall back into a role of trying to please the sitter or the thought pattern that something has to be always happening instead of holding the course, waiting for the right moment.  It’s the most difficult thing.

by ©Vera Saltzman

by ©Vera Saltzman

2HeadS – “By archery in the traditional sense, which he esteems as an art and honours as a national heritage, the Japanese does not understand a sport but, strange as this may sound at first, a religious ritual. And consequently, by the ” art ” of archery he does not mean the ability of the sportsman, which can be controlled, more or less, by bodily exercises, but an ability whose origin is to be sought in spiritual exercises and whose aim consists in hitting a spiritual goal, so that fundamentally the marksman aims at himself and may even succeed in hitting himself.”, Herrigel wrote. What’s your main goal when you shoot someone’s portrait?

VeraS – I guess that depends on the situation. I once read that when a person agrees to sit for a portrait they are lending themselves to the photographer.  I think this is very true for my  “Sue and Winnie” portrait series.  Be assured these women don’t carry their dolls around the house with them. I was amazed by comments written by some people who actually believed they still played with their dolls.
I’m really interested in identity and how you capture something that is distinct about that individual. What makes you who you are? What can you tell about a person from their portrait?  Often I don’t know the person well whose portrait I’m taking so I don’t feel I can say I’m “capturing who they are”. I have no idea who they are.  I’m definitely putting my interpretation of the person forth.  I still worry if the person is going to like the portrait which is likely not a good thing. Some photographers shoot a person with little conversation taking place. The person arrives, sits and leaves. I like for there to be a little more interaction. I like to produce a beautiful image. I don’t mean the person has to be beautiful in the traditional sense of the word, I mean it is best when some sort of emotion is evoked. A question of “what is going on here?”, or “what is this person’s story”.  Expression can say a lot.

2HeadS – You won a prize on the first 2HeadS contest with a magnificent self-portrait. Since I started taking photography in a more serious level doing self-portraits, I always heard the fellow photographers I most admired telling that shooting self-portraits was the most difficult achievement, as we’re not behind the camera. I know that you have few more self portraits, but can you tell us bit more about this specific self-portrait?

VeraS –  I turned self portraits when I lived in the Arctic. I guess I was trying to find my voice as a photographer.  I think everyone has a story to tell, if they want to tell it,  and I loved doing them as I only had myself to please. There is no stress or expectations other than your own. I found that even though it was my story, whenever I shared them, others connected in some way. I find this very comforting. Most of the time they are studies of my face; the road map to your life. I’m a cancer survivor and a bit of a hypercondriac. I wonder what would have happened if doctors had not caught it early. I made this image as my way of starring down the demons. My husband hates it and I understand why. I do think some of my other work is very much about self portraiture even though I’m not physically in the images, for instance my doll series “Sue and Winnie” and even my urban landscapes.

 

2HeadS – As you know, 2HeadS took shape when my own photography start being lectured in universities worldwide, not only to guide some teachers but especially to give tips and guide some students of photography. Usually in the universities they learn photo techniques and they leave with a lack of background in fine arts and deeper issues. What would be an important issue that you could share (to fulfil) with these students and emerging photographers being a more experienced-professional one?

VeraS – Well, Gonzalo, I’m laughing at the thought of being called a professional. I’m still very much emerging even though I’m doing so later in life than most. I’m not sure at what point I’d ever call myself a professional, but I will give my opinion. I guess I’d share two things  with them: the importance of being true to themselves and not to be afraid to ask for help. I worked for many years in the corporate world. The money was good, but it did nothing for my soul. With photography, even on the days when things aren’t going the way I’d like, when I feel like sitting in a corner to cry by myself, I always know I love doing this. So, I keep doing it. Photography though is not unlike other professions. In the corporate world there would be what I called “the flavour of the month.” For instance, different business philosophies on leadership that lead to entire new vocabulary until the next new book came out. With photography, there are also things that are in vogue at a given time. The challenge for us is to be true to who we are in times when we’re not the cool kid on the block. Secondly, don’t be afraid to ask for help.  In the year since I completed my “structured” portfolio development studies I find what I miss is the discussions about photography; either my own work, that of other students or those photographers who we were studying. I miss getting feedback and even giving it. I’ve learned that having a small support system is important. A handful of trusted individuals to bounce ideas with, share thoughts and ask for help. How people develop these relationships may vary; on line, face to face, old school chums who live in other cities, but the important thing I believe is to have them. Then again that could be the extrovert coming out in me.

Arvelle and Shirley by ©Vera Saltzman

Arvelle and Shirley by ©Vera Saltzman

Debbie and Dolly by ©Vera Saltzman

Debbie and Dolly by ©Vera Saltzman

Lynda and Baby by ©Vera Saltzman

Lynda and Baby by ©Vera Saltzman

2HeadS – I “can not not” bring the ladies with the dolls, probably your most iconic work: “Sue and Winnie” series… how personal or even biographic are them? What was that lead you into this concept/series?

VeraS – Most of my photography starts with a question rather than an answer. I’ve had my own doll in the attic or hidden in the back of a closet my entire adult life. For a long time it was at my parents place until the time came for my stuff to finally get moved out. I thought I’d get rid of it but for some reason, I just couldn’t seem to do it. I noticed my mother-in-law, at the age of 76, also still had her childhood doll sitting proudly in a spare bedroom. I started with her portrait and put out the call through friends looking for other women. I chose women over 40 because it was at that time in my life I began to really feel old or feel like the sand was flowing out of the hour glass. These images are tinged with a sense of ‘memento mori’ – ‘remember that you are mortal.’ As I age, I am constantly reminded of life’s uncertainty. This series helps me reflect on the human condition: the transience of life and the inevitability of death.

Mary Tassugat by ©Vera Saltzman

Mary Tassugat by ©Vera Saltzman

2HeadS – Bringing your trophies here… did you ever took (or stole) a photo that you considered to be a trophy… like the trophies of the animals you shot (for their second time)?

VeraS – Since trophies have marked victories since ancient times I’ll share with you an image that for me marked a victory. I became serious about my photography when I moved to Nunavut, one of Canada’s arctic territories. I really struggled to fit in, so I turned to it as a way to build bridges between myself and the Inuit, a friendship of sorts – a visual record of an intangible exchange. I worked on a portrait series of the Inuit elders in the community of Clyde River where I lived. I remember shooting Mary Tassugat, the eldest woman in the town. I  simply asked for her to look at the camera, but Mary couldn’t stop laughing. I think she thought I was a little crazy but since laughing is infectious, I started laughing too. As she raised her hand to cover her mouth in an attempt to stop, I clicked the shutter. I consider that one image, to be one of my greatest victories. At that moment, even though we couldn’t speak each other’s language, I felt this real connection that I longed for. Mary is still alive and I returned to Clyde River to photograph her again. I think she still believed me to be the crazy lady with the camera. When you spoke of tension in taking a portrait earlier, I do believe this is one image for me in which I captured the right moment.

2HeadS – Even if it’s a bit out of the 2HeadS line, I wanted you to ask about your urban-landscapes photographs. And I said that are possibly not in the 2HeadS line as they lack humanity there… they’re so clean of humans, so well balanced, so minimal on their own concept, that I wonder if those places you shot were not build by humans. Do you freeze the time so you can do the photograph without people, as they seem to be?

VeraS – There is no need to freeze time using a long exposure if that is what you mean. Last August I moved to the province of Saskatchewan. It’s sad to see so  many of the towns in Saskatchewan dying before my eyes with homes being built on top of one another in cities.  These little towns with their quirky buildings feel so neglected. When you stand in the middle of the street to look around, there are very few people. If one appears, I just need to wait a second and they will have ducked inside a door. But perhaps this feeling of melancholy is accentuated by my personal feelings.  Recently my photography has offered a time of contemplation, but not in the since of relaxing. More in the fighting off of an overpowering sadness that a certain times frightened me. Moving attributed to this for sure. Feeling lost in a place I didn’t know how to belong to, but also my age definitely is impacting me more and more which is typical I believe. After all, the fragility of life and transience of time are common themes in photography.

LeBret Hotel, by ©Vera Saltzman

LeBret Hotel, by ©Vera Saltzman

2HeadS – Are you fulfilled when you’re shooting or do you fulfil more yourself when developing an old roll that is well surprising you?

VeraS – I’m too impatient to ever have an old roll surprise me. I like to develop my film quickly. I’m like a little kid at Christmas who can’t wait to get the wrappings off the gifts. So imagine, when I shoot digital, I can’t stop myself from looking constantly. I think I get some sense of fulfillment out of every step in the process, though putting myself out there to do portraits is not always easy.  Isn’t that strange coming from an extrovert.  And I’d likely have more landscapes if I didn’t dislike being cold so much. I’ve never done post production for another photographer. I think I would miss having the emotional connection to what I’m working on.

2HeadS – and to finish, you do portraits and self-portraits… but would you feel comfortable if a fellow photographer would ask you to be the subject of their work? Imagine that I would go to Canada and ask you to pose for me…

VeraS – I’m not comfortable being the subject for others but since so many have graciously given of their time to me I like to “pay it forward”.  My favourite portrait of myself was taken by Angela Walker, a photographer from Ottawa, Canada who included me in a series on women who are “water tigers” under the Chinese Zodiac. She shot my back:

Vera Saltzman by Angela Walker

Vera Saltzman by Angela Walker

Related essays you should read:

Self Portrait Contest – The Finalists;
2HeadS Contest: Self-Portrait;
Anonymous: defaced, unfaced, 2faced and overfaced
;
A self-incarnation of the superego (self portraits)
The Portrait I. a brief history of.
The Portrait II: or how to face it.

interview by ©Gonzalo Bénard for 2HeadS
June, 2013
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