A former painter, previously the photography director for vibe magazine, George Pitts was also an acclaimed poet whose poems thrilled the other, George Plimpton, the founder of paris review who subsequently published his works in that eponymous literary journal of yore. currently the director of photographic practices at parsons the new school for design, he is near the completion of his photographic series that lovingly depicts women, north of 35 years of age, with such sensual candor and economy of sexuality. his women stirs as much as egon schiele’s female nudes. besides the sheer delight in experiencing such dionysian sympathies that pitts imbues his women with, there is that inescapable voluptuous panic that any viewer invariably experiences.
Iké Udé: How did this project come about?
George Pitts: The work in the Eros gallery was done over the last 5 years or so, and represents the different Women who have come forward to be photographed, often for more than one shoot.
Since its commencement until now, has it followed the exact trajectory that you had anticipated?
Preparation and Research figure in prior to doing certain of the shoots; and I have been consciously working more with available light, complicated shadows, and a mixture of available light with strobe. Probably the work exhibits more refinement, and more daring on the part of the subjects. I can never fully predict the direction of a shoot, but when on set I do endeavor to tie the different setups into a kind of possible narrative. I deliberately contrast naturalism with differing degrees of Surrealism, often working with flowers as a visual foil with the nude.
What have been some of the unexpected surprises—good or bad—that you’ve so far encountered? Working with and working through insecurities is a facet of the work, daunting for some artists, and a given for others.
Things that aren’t obvious on the surface tend to constitute the “surprises”: a quiet person can often be livelier or sexually bolder than a more extroverted or loquacious individual. I can’t recall anything that I would really characterize as “bad.”
Working with and working through insecurities is a facet of the work, daunting for some artists, and a given for others.
Besides the obvious sensuality of this body of work, what other subtexts, signifiers or leitmotivs are you exploring?
Your term “other subtexts” leads me to draw attention to the obvious: I’m interested in a woman’s character coming through in the images, and her persona. At times due to the layers of experience visible in a woman, realism overlaps with qualities one could only describe as mythic. Types inevitably surface in one’s aesthetic, as it does with painters; and you can either recognize these recurrent kinds of beauty, or strive to cast more widely. I’m inclined to be more inclusive than build a legacy based strictly on glamour. Vulnerability, and a reading of universality interest me, without the reductive generalizing gloss that often accompanies such pictorials. I believe I’m drawn to individuals above all.
What goes into the preparations for a typical photo-session?
Some minimum or maximum of planning, details of clothing or shoes, considerations pertaining to the location or space being used and whether available light is present, choices of music, often change from person to person. Sometimes a subject will want to assume the stance or behavior of figures in works of art, such as those by Schiele, John Singer Sargent, or whoever. Sometimes with younger subjects, Balthus comes to my mind in the quality of pensiveness or the beautiful awkwardness embodied in a person. Certain films by auteur directors can inform certain depictions, and I gravitate to directors such as Fassbinder, Catherine Breillat, and Jacques Rivette. But one must also be prepared to abandon any preconceptions and simply improvise, particularly if time allows for it.
How do you find the women in your pictures?
Often I ask women politely if I can photograph them; or I encounter people in different social contexts: parties, art events, and beyond. Subjects refer other subjects to me with increasing frequency. Nowadays, because my work is visible in books and on the Internet, I am fortunate that people often ask to be photographed.
There is a candid intimacy in these photographs. How do you and your sitters manage to realize this?
On my part, I think it’s a result of being attentive, of paying attention: during our conversations, and through written exchanges prior to a shoot. Obviously, I can’t speak for the sitters; but photo shoots done for one’s self or that contribute to one’s body of work often have a different tenor and pace than those done for Editorial purposes. I try to be a good listener. Working with and working through insecurities is a facet of the work, daunting for some artists, and a given for others.Working with the specific person and their specific qualities enables them to relax.One shouldn’t forget that the technical aspects pertaining to lighting, mise en scene, and mood, contribute to the ‘construction’ of intimacy.
Returning back to your earlier answer. What instances make it possible for you to shoot a particular woman more than once and what distinguishes one picture from the other?
First of all, that particular woman would also have to be interested in being photographed again; and if she informs me of her interest, we often give some thought to what more could be accomplished. Those shoots that occur after the initial shoot are continuations into different areas of feeling, physical behavior, emotional play, and mutual self-discovery. A discussion of clothing or location options often happens; or some vague or specific desire to go further. Going further doesn’t necessarily mean a more frank and intimate disclosure, but can entail more room to experiment with behavior, tapping into unexplored sectors of the woman’s personality or imagination. Clothing, an idiosyncratic prop, or accessories such as a belt, hats, or even fashions derived from the region where the subject forged her sense of self or allure can bleed through in the succeeding shoots. There is no formulaic pattern. As for my own desire to continue shoots with an individual, it often lies in the sheer pleasure of the woman’s presence, her humor about herself, and a sense that the experience is so rewarding and fun that one wants to prolong the interaction with an engaging individual. A sitting may feel ‘unfinished’ somehow, despite the success of the results, and that may impel me to say then and there, that I’d like to shoot them again. It’s akin to a painter who chooses to paint subjects they know or continuing with the subject matter that best suits their aesthetic.
How much do you art direct your women during the shoot and is your direction verbal or non-verbal? I’d say that Women are simply more culturally and personally conscious that their presence is resonant and invaluable for ART.
Direction is a complex or easygoing dialogue with the woman’s persona, physical allure, and potential for multiple expressions of her different facets. Direction if observed objectively when I’m at work entails seeing a potential strand of behavior and sometimes prolonging it, teasing it out into a miniature performance. It’s not the easiest thing to talk about, but the process entails witnessing the qualities that a woman shows you, or that she can access within those moments during the shoot. I imagine the process has numerous affinities with working with an actor on a set, yet differs in that my subjects don’t have a script to rely on, or maybe there is a kind of interior script that permeates any individual’s notions of themselves. I’ve observed how directors such as David Lynch work at the outer perimeters of knowing, such as when he directed “Inland Empire,” and his direction of actress Laura Dern reminded me of how intuition, trust, and the vaguest hair of an idea can be expanded into a succession of actions. His procedure very much reminded me of working with a woman toward a possible photograph.
I’d say that Women are simply more culturally and personally conscious that their presence is resonant and invaluable for ART.
Who are some of the iconic women of our time you would love to photograph in your style?
I like a range of actors, some of whom continue the legacy of the Femme Fatale, such as: Beatrice Dalle, Charlotte Rampling, Hanna Schygulla, Julianne Moore, Marina de Van, Noomi Rapace, Isabelle Huppert, Edwige Fenech, Melissa Leo, Barbara Steele, Juliette Binoche, Jeanne Moreau, Anna Karina, Helen Mirren, Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Beart, Liv Ullmann, Gunnel Lindblom, Delphine Seyrig, Laura Morante, Naomi Campbell, Emmanuelle Seigner, Margit Carstensen, Stephane Audran, Lena Endre; also singers, past and present such as Nina Simone, Eartha Kitt, Billie Holiday, Nico, Betty Davis, Grace Jones, Diamanda Gallas, Kate Bush, Lydia Lunch, Beth Gibbons of Portishead, they all move me. I realize in hindsight when I was a child, that I was profoundly influenced by the scores of Actresses who portrayed the Femme Fatale in both Hollywood and World Cinema, and these actors include: Gene Tierney (and her disorienting performance in “Leave Her To Heaven” and her posh more controlled appearance in the manic flashback classic “Laura”), Linda Darnell (who embodied Jane Russell-like vulgarity and a less exotic brand of beauty), Bette Davis (whose films I often viewed repeatedly with my mother during the 50s-60s, particularly her cruel classic, “The Letter,” which is a masterpiece pitting two Femme Fatales against each other: Davis versus an even more mysterious Asian courtesan who eventually murders her); Garbo and Dietrich, who often crisscrossed in the movie genres they explored; Kim Novak in “Vertigo,” Isabel Sarli (the Argentine transgressive sex diva, who inspired Pedro Almodovar as well as 70s adult star Vanessa Del Rio), Pam Grier (whose Blaxploitation films almost look like art films now that Quentin Tarantino has remixed their feverish style and period look in his own work), and Tilda Swinton, who seems engaged in a cinematic discourse with her own chameleon capacities. There’s another strand of sensibility that interests me about women: ethereal, cerebral, or kind-hearted temperaments such as the female vocalist in The Knife, Karin Dreijer Andersson (aka “Fever Ray”); and Ingrid Bergman (who like Liv Ullmann, exudes a quality of soulfulness that swells the room).
Considering your capacity for making women—even the older ones—most sensuous and desirable, do you have an age limit whereby you would consider a woman too old or young to be photographed?
Beauty is various and everywhere to be rendered, and ideally rendered well, that is, with tenderness and an aptness of touch depending on the nature of the individual. I rarely photograph women younger than 18, and I have a genuine regard for women who are older, regardless of how old they are.
It is ironic that you are a bona fide American photographer doing the kind of work that doesn’t particularly bode well with American puritanical sensibility. How do you reconcile this quagmire, say?
I think the profundity, and not necessarily the perversity of Art, necessitates a vigilance and idealism about the possibility for Beauty and sensual candor, despite the odds of being misunderstood. America isn’t exclusively puritanical. And some examples of the nude are so mild that they’re not likely to offend; but in imbuing the nude with a more open or pronounced sense of sexuality, can be problematic for some tastes.
In the context of your work, what painters, photographers or artists do you particularly identify with and why?
I’m a fan of audacious articulate women who envision complex representations of women such as director Catherine Breillat and the painter Jenny Saville. Influences come and go, but I keep returning to the work of: Manet, Vermeer, Degas, Courbet, Sargent, Boucher, Watteau, Balthus, Djuna Barnes, Luis Bunuel, Cy Twombly, Hans Bellmer, Susan Sontag, Jacques Rivette, Guy Bourdin, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Russ Meyer, Diane Arbus, Helmut Newton, Araki, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Virginia Woolf, Helene Cixous, Pedro Costa, Miles Davis. Lists can be futile, but they’re fun to do. I’ve long admired the work of: Samuel Beckett, Wallace Stevens, Raymond Roussel, John Ashbery, John Kelly, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Leonard Cohen, Roxy Music, Bowie, Scott Walker and the sense of rigor and luxuriousness embodied in his work. Refined or eccentric clothing style interests me. Ascetic and Voluptuous styles are of dual interest. As a photographer I’m drawn to the measured euphoric expressions of certain singers as a passionate style that perhaps can be transposed to the concerns of photography. Romantic fatalism sounds gorgeous in music. It informs my interest in Frank Sinatra, the idea of dandyism, and how a romantic crooner approaches a conceptual or complex set of emotions that manifest in a concrete often-beautiful representation.
Besides the pictorial result, what other pleasures do you get from your female nudes?
It’s always satisfying if the subject also likes the selected photographs.
Why do you think that the female nude remains such an enduring subject for artist/spectators after all these centuries and presently?
It’s an enduring theme, that however familiar, can never be exhausted. As women change, historically, culturally, physically, so does the practice and method of capturing them in photographs.
Is it at all possible that woman are more eager and willing than, say, men, to exhibit their body? If so why, do you think?
I’d say that Women are simply more culturally and personally conscious that their presence is resonant and invaluable for ART.
What aspects of the female body do you rate your favorite?
I would never generalize; it’s the individuality of the woman that I appreciate.
On a minutiae level, how much does each female body differ from another?
The differences are pretty vast from woman to woman, when speaking of individuals.
In the end, is there an ideal female form?
I don’t think so; but certainly different female body types are idealized in culture.
What are you presently and particularly working on?
My primary project right now is my work on a volume for Taschen Books, photographing Mature Women, women 35 years of age and older. It’s a body of work that I’ve been engaged with for over 10 years, but have only done in earnest in the last three years.