It’s difficult to introduce a sense of time passing in portrait photography; by definition, the medium implies a fleeting moment; a passing glance; a narrow window on history.
With his Woven Portraits, artist David Samuel Stern has managed to add the dimension of time to photographs of poets, choreographers, musicians, and fellow visual artists. The resulting images, archival inkjet prints that Stern weaves together, seem to float off the page, as the subjects demur from the direct gaze of the camera lens.
“I think it’s interesting that you can take two objective things, and the sum of those two photographs is something that doesn’t really maintain that objectivism,” Stern tells Co.Design. “You literally get little peeks or chunks of objectivity, but the overall picture is something that’s a little harder to put your finger on.”
Stern started the series in 2011 while completing a residency in Vermont. Taking his cues from the setting, he first experimented with weaving together landscape photographs. “I would take two pictures of the same landscape but at different times of day, different angles, and physically composite those together, but it wasn’t that interesting,” he says. In contrast, “with the human face, there’s a preconceived arrangement, a prototype in our brains that tells us what a face should look like.”
As Stern evolved the project, moving first to portraits and then to vellum, which adds a degree of ghostly translucence, Stern found the portraits struck a nerve with audiences fluent in a digital-image vocabulary. The weavings at first appear “pixelated,” but that visual trope masks their essential materiality. “I find it interesting that you can use digital terminology to make sense of something that is clearly physical,” Stern says. He cites the camera obscura work of Abelardo Morell, who photographed inverted window views projected onto interior walls in the 1990s, as kindred in spirit to what he hopes to achieve. Morell’s images look like a digital trick, but are “unbelievably simple,” with the window acting as a pinhole lens.
“If you bother to investigate what’s happening in that photo, it’s a physical thing, it’s how light works. I love photos that are crazy simple,” he says.
Stern, born in Highland Park, Illinois, in 1982, lives and works in Brooklyn. This October he travels to Nebraska for a residency, which he hopes will give him the time and space to figure out what comes next in the series. “I think it will evolve again,” he says. “There’s an open-endedness that I think is very attractive.”