This is how Dana Lixenberg makes a picture: she slips under a dark cloth attached to her large-format camera, frames and focuses her shot, emerges, loads a cassette of 4 x 5 analogue film, fixes her eyes on the person in front of her and clicks the shutter release. This is how she made portraits of more American artists and celebrities than you can imagine, by looking directly at them. This is also how Lixenberg, 57, made groundbreaking work documenting the American experiment, beautiful and grotesque, over the course of more than 30 years. An essential part of the process is making tests on instant Polaroid film to check lighting and composition. Her new book, titled Polaroid 54/59/79 in reference to types of peel-apart film produced by the company until its final bankruptcy in 2008, collects hundreds of test shots from countless shoots. The result is personal and unpolished, like a rediscovered treasure. Lixenberg and her assistants appear in many of the photos, as well as selfies she encouraged her famous sitters to take, long before the term became ubiquitous. They testify that Lixenberg is not so interested in celebrity, but she is always looking for something she recognizes. Fuji continued production of peel-apart film after Polaroid went under, but only for a handful of years. Lixenberg has 110 boxes left in her Amsterdam studio, or 1,100 test shots.
Atlanta, GA, 1993
Dana Lixenberg: This was shot as part of one of my first features for Vibe. My work for the magazine really led to all my other editorial work in the US. The well-known image of him, on film, is one where he’s looking into the camera. You don’t see it here — it looks like he’s just being introspective — but there were a lot of people there, and it was a very intense shoot. I scouted this industrial area in Atlanta on the edge of town. It was drizzling. The challenge was to keep the entourage at bay and to concentrate. He probably didn’t really know what to make of me. But he was a true artist. When you’re taking your work seriously and the person you photograph seriously and you care, people feel that. It’s less about hanging out or being one of the guys. At heart I’m basically a documentary photographer, but I’m trying to also reflect and create a compelling image that can be experienced separately from the context it was made for.
Sardinia, Italy, 1998
The concentration that is necessary for a shoot, especially with a large-format camera, helps keep the subject engaged. When the sitter doesn’t have expressive body language, I tend to move the camera around and incorporate more of the environment. This was definitely not the case with Ivana, who was incredibly vibrant, but setting up the camera with lighting on a moving yacht was definitely a challenge. After the shoot, we joined her for a swim in the ocean.
Philip Seymour Hoffman
New York, NY, 2002
I made the portraits of him upstairs in my building. He was very shy, and the magazine had sent along someone to style him for the shoot. But he was not into being styled. (I totally agree because the less fuss the better.) I photographed him as he was, and he wore the pencil in his shirt. For me, it’s not about big gestures or dynamic action. The action lies in small details and the gestures people make without being conscious of them.
Mary J Blige
New York, NY, 2001
She was clearly not excited to do the shoot. I think it was on a day she’d had to do one press event after the other. But, in a way, I kind of incorporate that into the shoot. When I’m working, I have to open myself up completely. It’s very much how you step into a space. I have to quickly gauge what someone is like or how they are feeling. Sometimes people are a bit defensive at first; maybe they’re uncomfortable. It’s OK if someone is anxious. It’s my job to make the person feel comfortable, not the other way round.
Mendham, NJ, 1998
This was from the shoot for the album cover My Love is Your Love. It was her first studio album in eight years and she was a bit nervous. I had worked with her several times before, so there was trust, even though I probably wasn’t an obvious choice to photograph her. Her image, like with many big artists, had been controlled, but somebody on her team was trying to open it up a bit. In the final, on the album cover, she’s smiling, of course. But these tests show her vulnerability. They’re very human.
Selfie by Ledger with Lixenberg and assistant Danielle van Ark, New York, NY, 2005
This was in my home in New York on Broadway. I prefer not to work in rental studios, so sometimes, if I needed to come up with a location, I’d say, “Let’s do it at my place.” He was pretty low-key. It was a very hot day in September, no air-con. His girlfriend was pregnant then, and I made a Polaroid for them where he pushed out his sympathy belly to her pregnant stomach. That’s the nice thing about Polaroid. It’s not like you’re just taking something from someone; you make something and you can give it to them.
Las Vegas, NV, 2004
With color Polaroids you had to wait two minutes to pull the image, and sometimes I got impatient and pulled it too soon. You can see the image is underdeveloped; the color is quite monotone. I photographed this story in Las Vegas for a story on impersonators. The audience knows they’re not the real deal but still pose with them at the meet-and-greets. It was all quite surreal, but reality often is. I like to create tableaux from situations I encounter.
New York, NY, 2000
During my first summer in New York, in 1989, I worked in a restaurant in the Hamptons. I earned enough there to support myself in the city while I was starting out. There were always celebrities coming in for dinner, and I usually didn’t work the VIP section because of my lack of experience. But one night I waited on a table with Kathleen Turner and some friends, who were quite loud and great fun. They were buzzed, and she left this huge tip. Many years later, I was assigned to shoot her for the Sunday Telegraph magazine. I told her the story about the really big tip she left me. I always tell people, it all comes back to you.
New York, NY, 2007
I dedicated the book to Jacqueline’s memory. She needed a portrait for something, and I photographed her at my home. I met her in New York around 2003. When we first got together, we couldn’t stop talking and this endless conversation lasted until her untimely death in 2018. As a visual artist, her work life was very different from mine because she didn’t t really do much commissioned work. But we both traveled a lot and had similar lifestyles, besides both being Dutch. We would always share our experiences and learn from each other. She was a great artist; the way she approached her work made me see aspects of the world in a new and different light.
New York, NY, 2002
This was a reshoot for a magazine that wasn’t happy with a shoot someone else had done. She was appearing on the Today show, and I went to meet her in the green room. Backstage in American television studios isn’t very glamorous, and it was really early in the morning. But I like it when people are not trying too hard. She was very real.
New York, NY, 2003
Through my editorial work in the US, I really got to know the country. Even if I’m photographing people who have views that are completely opposite to mine, I step into a job without judgment. I always want to be respectful. She did seem like someone I would enjoy having a drink with. There’d definitely be subjects of conversation where you wouldn’t want to go. She was a spirited, intriguing character, a bit neurotic, highly strung.
New York, NY, 2000
I’m always nervous before a shoot, but that disappears once I start. Sontag was very nice, and the shoot was easy. I photographed her on her terrace, which is near the penthouse of her partner Annie Leibovitz. The hard part with every shoot is to decide where to start. I step into a situation and have to make quick, fast choices. But even if I have no clue what I’m doing, where I’m going with a shoot, I just have to pretend I know and get on with it. I have it. It’s my job.
Jeffersonville, IN, 1998
Jeffersonville, Indiana, is a small town across the river from Louisville, Kentucky. I did a seven-year project there on homelessness, jump-started by an assignment from Jane magazine in 1997. It was a small shelter that catered to families. To give back, Trish was volunteering, sorting donated clothes, and she selected a few things for the shoot. She said, “I surprise people every day when they learn I’m homeless.” The image you have of homelessness is people on the street, but there is a large group that doesn’t fall into that category. Workers in the US become homeless very easily. I’m not interested in illustrating a person’s temporary situation. I’m not photographing people sitting on the bed in the shelter. That just reduces the person.
Dana Lixenberg’s exhibition “Polaroid 54/59/79” is at Huis Marseille, Amsterdam, until September 4. huismarseille.nl
The accompanying book is published by Roma Publications
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