Sandy Dyas: A pull between being an artist and being a documentarian? Yes. I did feel a conflict once I began selecting the individual photos to go into the book. The book was to have 60 images only, so I knew immediately that I had to really edit my selection down. I had many, many more. Choosing was a difficult job. Lots of changing my mind during the editing process.
I went through my negatives and began printing the ones I liked the best for various reasons. But when I began thinking about how many of each person there should be, it was definitely complex. There would be many solo portraits of Dave Zollo, say, and I would also have one of Dave and his friend Ruairi Fennessy that I wanted to include, so I might have to delete one of the solo photos of David. I would print and reprint, look at the results, spend time with them, leave them alone for a while, come back to them, start it all over again.
Finally, when I had it narrowed down but still hadn't completely selected my final prints, I copied them all into a manageable 5 x 7 size xerox and put together a mock-up so I could easily lay out the photos and pay close attention to the sequencing.
When I shot the photographs, I didn't I edit myself in any way that I was truly conscious of. Since in general the negatives were only going into my files and not into the hands of the musicians or the public, I feel that I shot the photos for myself. But there is that part in me that wants people to look good and not too strange. (I think my portraiture background is to blame.) I tend to see people through my eyes--and in a good light.
I mean, I think all art comes from a person's inner psyche. A portrait is a collaboration between the photographer and the subject. If they project a persona, I photograph them that way. If they are just comfortable being themselves without posing, I try to let them be as natural as they appear thru the viewfinder. I do use the frame to help compose though--I may ask them to stand differently or tip their head one way or the other, direct them a bit. But when I "see" someone through the viewfinder, I'm looking for an image of them that I feel is true to who I know them to be.
PM: You've had a portrait studio and that was your job for a time. Now you teach and are a freelance photographer. Is teaching providing your main livelihood at the moment? Do you still take wedding pictures and other kinds of portraits for people other than musicians?
SD: I wear many hats--most are photographic hats. I teach photography at Cornell College part-time, usually 4 or 5 classes per year. Since it is not full-time and my income is about half of full-time professors, I freelance for the rest of my income. Portraiture is one of my skills and weddings have been a big source of income since 1976. I do photograph musicians fairly often but I also am commissioned to photograph non-musicians. I also do magazine and newspaper shoots--I suppose they are more "editorial" in nature but they always involve some portraits.
Some of my recent portrait work was for Willie Wisely, a musician from L.A. who happened to be in Iowa City recently. He was playing a set at the Picador and asked a friend of his if he knew anyone who could do some portraits of him for his new CD. Earlier this year I shot an entire day's worth of photographs of Ray Bonneville who will be releasing a new record soon on Red House. That was a challenging but very fun shoot--we drove down to Arkansas to do it. Great location...little tiny town with lots of great environments to work in.
PM: What were some of the challenges?
SD: It was challenging for me because Eric at Red House told me to make some photographs of Ray that were "iconic." That was his wording. Well, that is a tall order, no matter who is being photographed. But I knew what he wanted.
Ray worked with me the whole time--he allowed me to direct the show. And he had found some cool places. Natural light. It was the longest shoot I've ever done. We shot from about 9:30 in the morning til the sun went down! It was hard work and I loved it.
PM: Do you find that most people resist being photographed? What's your feeling about people who like having their picture taken versus people who don't?
SD: Some people are more comfortable in having their picture taken--oh yes, this is true. Partly it may just be that if you get your photograph taken often enough, you learn to control your image. You have a very good idea of how you look in a photograph after having photos taken again and again. I would also say that part of it is confidence in how you look. Some people really hate being photographed because they don't like how they look. Often that has to do with aging. And of course some people don't care about their appearance as much as others...they just are. Some people primp and others do not.
If I can create a photograph that my subject is happy with, I feel good about it. I certainly have not pleased everyone with my skills. But I enjoy the one-on-one experience that takes place when I do a shoot with one person. It is a special experience. It is rather intimate and revealing. I think it allows me to get closer to people. I like the shooting much more than the printing.
PM: You've been working on a series called "Lost Nation." Can you describe that project? Are you putting together a book of those images also?
SD: The Lost Nation Photographs are an ongoing body of photographs that I have been compiling for about 20 years. They are memories too, much like the photographs of the musicians, but these are more of a diary of my everyday life in the world. Some of the photographs are of people I know very well, others I have only met briefly. As a whole, to me they are about the human condition, the hope and the hopelessness of living life. Sad and beautiful, strange and surreal, what I see turns into a photograph that holds something beyond what is physically there. I guess if I had to describe my work, it is poetic. Some of the photographs come from the Midwest, others from the Czech Republic, and others from Louisiana and other parts of the country. I take my camera with me when I travel and I try not to take "tourist" photos...but of course I have to take those too!
Yes, I would love to have The Lost Nation Photographs turn into a published book. I am looking into self-publishing, like on Lulu.com. I see that as a viable option. Photographers always want to have books made of their work. Photographs, more so than paintings, really adapt well into a book form.
[You can see some pictures from the Lost Nation series, and other examples of Sandy's work, at her website. At the end of the interview you'll find links to take you there and to other places of interest.]