Cultural History, Through Weissman’s Lens

The artist seeks the elusive moment in somewhat superficial settings
Walter Weissman
Walter Weissman has spent a lifetime taking photographs, including portraits of artists across the decades. Morgan McGivern

     It was November in Northwest Woods and Walter Weissman’s front lawn was blanketed in crunchy tobacco-colored leaves. The cottage on Atlantic Street, which he shares with Eunice Golden, a painter, gives her the bright and airy studio space she needs and him his own space to work on his photography as well as a basement to work on his sculpture of constructed and deconstructed objects.
    Mr. Weissman has had a presence in East Hampton from as early as the 1970s, but his youth in the 1940s and 1950s was spent in Brighton Beach, still on the same land mass, just many miles to the west. On a dark and drizzly day, he sat down to discuss his background, his current sculpture projects, but specifically his photographs.
     As a young man, he dabbled in different mediums, sometimes photography, sometimes painting, sometimes sculpture. He was 13 when he got his first camera and developed and printed the photographs in his bathroom in Brighton Beach. Long before he would find his way to East Hampton, he took his earliest inspiration from Life magazine’s spread of Hans Namuth’s photographs of Jackson Pollock. “They blew me away and informed my consciousness the way people get hooked into music, but for me it was it about visualizing through photographic images.”
    Some of his first classes were taken with Gregory Babcock at Kingsboro Community College, where he helped set up the art department’s slide collection. Harry Holtzman at Brooklyn College and Robert Morris at Hunter College were other early influences, he said.
    “Holtzman was an early promoter of [Piet] Mondrian. He brought him into the United States and gave up his studio for him” when the artist came to New York City in the 1940s, before his death in 1944, to escape the war, he said.
    Babcock, who served as a mentor, took him along to Andy Warhol’s studio The Factory in 1969 when he was still a student. He recalled that in order to get into the studio someone had to throw down the keys to the door and then take the elevator up or climb up the fire escape.
    Mr. Weissman was also mentored by Walter Rosenblum, who taught at Brooklyn College at the time he was an undergrad and took him to Yale University Summer School as an assistant. Mr. Rosenblum literally helped write the book on photography, assisting his wife Naomi Rosenblum, who wrote “A World History of Photography,” with various curatorial projects. His own work and years of teaching are still considered an invaluable contribution to the medium.
    Mr. Weissman rented his first studio in TriBeCa in 1973. Not long after, he found a second home at the Parsons Blacksmith Shop and then above the Springs General Store. Many of his early photographs were taken close to his home in Brooklyn. Later, he explored Europe, where his black-and-white streetscapes captured the old European feel of Eugene Atget’s photographic explorations of Paris in an earlier century.
    Through his friends and neighbors in TriBeCa, he became involved with advocacy organizations starting in the 1970s with the Artists Meeting for Cultural Change and as a member of the Catalogue Committee Inc., which published “an anti-catalog” to protest the absence of significant female and minority representation in museum and gallery exhibits. He was also active in the Foundation for the Community of Artists, an advocacy group that worked to provide affordable housing and health insurance to artists as well as address issues of representation in galleries. He served as the foundation’s president for four years.

    In order to get into Warhol’s studio someone had to throw down the keys to the door and then take the elevator up or climb up the fire escape.

    Starting in the 1980s, but more consistently in the decades following, he began to take portraits and snapshots of artists, celebrities, and other notable people, typically at events for photo agencies such as Corbis. While many of his celebrity photos have appeared in such publications as The New York Times, Newsweek, People, and New York magazine, the group of artists he turned his lens on includes many of the more prominent artists who have practiced on the East End recently.
    There are pictures of Roy Lichtenstein, Donald Sultan, Eric Fischl, April Gornik, Ross Bleckner, Larry Rivers, Richard Serra, Chuck Close, and others of more recent vintage than the classic 1950s and 1960s artist photos that people are more used to seeing.
    He has been working on putting together a traveling exhibit of these pictures, “Portraying Artists: Photographs by Walter Weissman,” with a catalog. “It’s a document and history of the cultural age of the 1980s to present time through photographic images.” At least one institution has been working with him to make the show a reality, but he declined to mention which one because the discussions were still in the early stages.
    Even in informal settings such as exhibit openings, Mr. Weissman said he works hard to get a definitive shot. “The Chuck Close portrait I took worked because I positioned him next to a Donald Sultan painting of circular dots.” He said the dots could relate to Hollywood lights or a makeup chair, but here they had a specific relation to the artist’s painting process, in which he dissolved images into smaller components, often as dots, and to the blips and other pictorial shapes Mr. Close now employs. “I thought it also related to art history, in the work of Georges Seurat and Roy Lichtenstein with his Ben-Day dots.”
    An image of Elaine de Kooning with a romantic flowy shirt and yards of necklaces at Vered in 1984 is singular in its strength and hints of bygone beauty. The painting behind her seems to provide a certain structure or ballast for her otherwise ethereal presence.
    The thoughts of Henri Cartier-Bresson on the “decisive moment” had a great influence on him. Yet, he sees the more posed images he did as a bridge between a studio portrait and the subject in more unguarded territory. He said it was “the elusive moment” that he sought, one that would help reveal something profound about his subject in a superficial setting.
    It is on the red carpet and at public appearances that the personalities of celebrities “hide in plain sight. The superficiality comes from how much can a photographer know about someone? How to get that introspective moment? The image must be revelatory.”