Just Plain Folks
by Michael G. DeVoll
Gus Van Sant: 108 Portraits
Twin Palm Publishers, Santa Fe, NM, 1992, 112 pages, $50
I've always enjoyed a good book. "To bea good book,” the content will interest me, but it should also be pleasing in its physical presence. This notion was nurtured during my years in the retail book business. I began noticing specific publishers orimprints that appealed to me. There were a few that stood out as having consistently high-quality workmanship—interesting cover art; paper that was pleasing to the touch; end papers with delicate, intricate or unusual printing; and exceptional reproductions and press work. Of course, once I have admired a book as an object, the content also must have lasting impact. Gus Van Sant: 108 Portraits is such a book.
Published by Twin Palms Publishers, a small company specializing in high-quality photography and art books, this book stands out on first glance because the dark, matte finish of the cover with its stark, white lettering has such graphic impact, a little severe yet clean. When you pick up the book, it is heavy, but not burdensome and the cover feels smooth, almost waxy. If you look under the slipcover (the only way to fully appreciate the craft of bookbinding), the black fabric cover is embossed with the tide, appearing as black-on-black. You then turn to the heavy, black, matte, textured end paper inside the front cover. The title page (replicating the sans-serif, capitalized type treatment from the cover) and the introduction are on a matte paper with white type reversed out a lush, rich black ink printed full bleed. What follows is the real treat of this book, the 108 portraits. With such a build up, you expect high-quality reproductions and, typical of Twin Palms, you are not disappointed.
The publishers decided to use an older, more labor-intensive process, the photogravure, that uses a chemically-etched copper plate. If the photos were enlarged, the dot pattern of the standard halftone process would not be evident, but rather a mesh-like pattern resulting in much more subtle gradations, from crisp whites to deep, rich blades. But as mentioned before, the subject matter of the book is what must ultimately hold your attention, and again, this book does not fail.
The 108 portraits were taken by the independent filmmaker Gus Van Sant between 1988 and 1992. These photographs started in the casting sessions for his films Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho. In the introduction, he talks of the awkward moment at the end of an interview when the interviewer is tempted to rudely say “next.” Instead, Van Sant asked the subjects if he could lake their picture. No one has yet to turn him down. Moving them to a predetermined location with good natural light and an unobtrusive background, he'd give no further warning than “Okay, ready" and take one picture. He used a Polaroid land camera with Polaroid P/N film that gives an instant black-and-white negative. Van Sant explains that initially these small prints helped him visualize the characters and casting possibilities. Eventually, he took these snapshots of anyone he met in “the business.” The result ofthe progression is a collection of portraits of the famous, the near-famous, and the nowhere-close-to-famous. The most intriguing aspect of this work is that all of these people are presented in the same, straight-forward, un-glamorous way. Many of the images even have largescratches or flares on them. These are not the slick, glamorous, celebrity portraits of Annie Leibowitz, Herb Ritts, or Greg Gorman: these are not even the publicity stills that agents send out. These are completelyoutside the Hollywood framework.
All the subjects ate shown half-length and the distinctive Polaroid rough border is always present. This consistency of format lends itself to presentation in book form. Each image is presented full frame, one image per page (almost to the edge of the page), with an unobtrusive page number in the inner lower corner. This allows the reader to turn pages and “read” each person without interruption. Although there is some variance in the backgrounds, most are nondescript, instead focusing on the subject. Flipping through the book without muchthought, I began recognize a few of the faces. I then looked for a listing of who these people were—almost like a visual memory test. Those I recognized from this movie or that TV series or that music video didn’t look much different from the people I didn't recognize. (If you watch many independent films, you will probably do better on the test than your friends who don’t.) But recalling the premise under which the photographs were made, I realized that these were not images about these people being famous, but being “just plain folks.”
This “sameness” caused me to go back and look again, to try and figure out why some of these people were famous and others were not. On repeated trips through the book, certain common visual characteristics stand out. You notice the hair—long, loose, pulled back.“fixed,” and the really bad-hair-day hair. The stances of the people vary. Most are facing forward withtheir arms down at their sides with some notable exceptions. Adult film star Traci Lords is turned sideways, her tight black shirt accentuating her figure against the white background. Some of the people have their arms crossed in front of them giving two different impressions: daring and proud(Sandra Bernhard, Kevin Dillon, and Lonehart) or protective and scared (Heather Graham, and Patti D’Arbanville). Also notable is the clothing: the bare shoulder, the coat and tie, the bra strap showing, the suspenders, the grunge look (before it was fashionable), the scarf around the neck, the flower-print polyester dress, and lots of t-shirts. Most of the people pictured were just out and about on a normal day so these things at least hint at the individual behind the facade.
As you look through the book, the eyes strike you the most. Those "windows of the soul” become almost haunting. Like the accoutrements with which the people choose to adorn themselves, the eyes are varied and telling. Many come across, as innocent (Laurie Parker, John Knight, Felix Howard, Rodney Eastman, Kristy Swanson), others as not so innocent, (Traci Lind, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sean Coffey, Peter Gallagher, Peter Murnik).Many, with their direct stare, have piercing eyes (Nicholas Kallsen, Meg Foster, Udo Kier, Rodney Haney, River Phoenix), others just seem tired (Amy Wright, William S. Burroughs, Josh Deparrie, Bill Richert, Grace Zabriskie, Pat Morita, Bruno, Steve Buscemi, Rick Schroder). The years and wisdom of some are revealed in their eyes (David Byrne, Dennis Hopper, Allen Ginsberg, Tracy Capman, Faye Dunaway). Others have a knowing sadness that belies their few years (Rebecca Ross, Phong Truont, Balthazar Getty). For an number of reasons, some have eyes that just seem empty (Josh Evans, Ione Skye, Keanu Reeves, Anthony Kiedis, Bernie Coulison, Danny Perkin). The portrait of Bradley Gregg makes your heart ache because he looks scared and lost.
As a whole, the book, with its superb craftsmanship and powerful imagery, is one that impresses you each time you look at it and stays with you after you put it down. Van Sant, in the introduction, talks about the “power a single person carries around with them,” and the fact that they “embody huge potentials for success or failure, for nervousness or calm, for sainthood or deviltry.” He has captured these people in compelling portraits at varying stages of their progression through their potential. Some are more successful at projecting their “power” but the “sameness” that is present indicates that there is also a certain amount of luck and timing involved in being "famos”. This book allows you to peek in on a moment in these peoples' lives while reinforcing that we are all made of the same flesh and blood.
Michael G. DeVoll is administrative director of the Houston Center for Photography and a frequent contributor to SPOT.