Ian Lewandowski has been photographing people since he picked up his first camera. In his ongoing body of work, Lewandowski creates laborious portraits using a large-format view camera. A process that is generally uncommon today, Lewandowski refers to an archive of images that he collects — then translate into his portraiture work. Through a process of collaboration with his subjects, Lewandowski creates an ever-expanding world that resists a sense of hierarchy.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, and how this project came about. How long have you been working on this series — and how has it evolved over time?
I’ve taken portraits ever since I got my first camera at 17. Usually my friends or people I was just meeting. I would set things up sometimes but the photos were mostly candids. It was 35mm color film and I would get it processed at the CVS by my parents’ house. Looking back now I realize (this is 2007), I was first starting to feel the discouragement from using a manual camera and film. I remember that there was one professional photo lab about 30 minutes from where I lived called Gary Camera. The first camera I received at 17 had a Gary Camera service sticker on the inside. Today it’s called Gary Camera & Digital.
Over time I got more interested in different cameras and film formats — to me they each have different personalities. I continue to shoot mostly people I am just meeting or with whom I’ve only had limited contact. There’s something important to me about using a big cumbersome camera in this situation. It feels very deliberate. Sitting for a portrait is, I believe, an extremely generous gesture. It feels like a radical exchange. We’re both working to make the picture happen. It’s actually those moments where I feel most in touch with a queer discourse — the degree of generosity and space held for each other.
Who are the people in your photographs? What is your relationship with them? How do you decide who to photograph?
I’m usually choosing queer people in my life, even if only peripherally. Not every person in my pictures is queer, but by being in the picture I like a certain sense of initiating them into a queer world, if this makes sense. I don’t know how productive it would be for me to exclude straight people outright. Moreover I’d say anyone I shoot, I’m interested in witnessing their strength and contribution. I find myself working backwards from a traditional studio photo practice since I start with existing pictures as a starting point. When I’m choosing a sitter I’m usually looking at their body language and general vibe, to see whether they fulfill a certain role in the picture.
What is your process in posing your subjects?
Poses and gestures in my work directly reference a quasi-image archive I compile from online or print. This archive evades hierarchies. Its images often carry an explicitly or subtextual queer lineage. I position the pictures I take as reenactments of those in this archive, responses to them given expanding contexts. The exacting and laborious sensibility required to operate the view camera setup provides an appropriate platform for the long and meditative analysis I feel the archival images command.
What is the difference between community and family to you, if there is any? How does queerness shape this perspective?
Frankly I think phrases like “the queer community” have the potential to be reductive and imply a lack of things like racism, sexism, internalized homophobia, that still plague the realities of queer people. I like a word like family more, not that it doesn’t have a similarly harmful potential, but it feels easier for me to reimagine a model of family than to reimagine a larger more vague concept like community. It feels more nuanced.
What are some of the influences, especially for this body of work — and how do you consciously build upon the narrative and history that preceded you?
I’m constantly seeking out existing photographs that carry a queer context or sensibility. These might be from Instagram, but they might also be more historical images from The Center archives. I try to resist a sense of hierarchy in that way. My way to consciously build upon the narrative is to respond with more images. The gesture of having my sitters mimic the figures of these photographs has for me felt like the most appropriate way to enact such a lineage.
What do you listen to when you are working on your photographs?
A lot of Lucinda Williams lately. And Erykah Badu’s MTV Unplugged album. Also my friend Sam Buck’s new album Borderline! I’ve been building up a playlist on Youtube of live or like B-side stuff not on Spotify. MoMA’s What Makes Contemporary Photography Feminist and Queer?. Podcasts like The L Word Made Me Gay as well.
Something that you saw on the internet that makes you sad…
On Hulu or Netflix, can’t remember which, I watched an AMAZING doc on the San Antonio Four which was a group of four queer women who were imprisoned under false homophobic charges: trailer for Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four.