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Christian Witkin is a celebrity/ portrait photographer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. I found Christian Witkin years ago on YouTube, and I have been following his work ever since. Despite his busy schedule and work on his first short film, he agreed to do this article, for which I'm very pleased.
About Christian Witkin
Dutch-American photographer and filmmaker, Christian Witkin (b.1966), explores the light and darkness of the human psyche. From the tough streets of NYC and Los Angeles to the subcontinent of India, he is deeply curious about people and cultures. While the scope of his work is vast, Christian's aesthetic reflects his urban and intercontinental influences.
After calling New York City his home for 30 years, he recently relocated to Los Angeles in 2018 where he has been mining his archive for publishing and exhibition purposes. In addition, he is writing and directing his first short film, "Bad Dona", a psychological thriller and character analysis of a disturbingly beautiful middle aged woman living in Los Angeles.
Artists who's work inspires him are the socially vulnerable portraits of painter Alice Neel; the streetwise photos of Diane Arbus; the anthropological motifs of August Sander and the socially committed works of Walker Evans and Gordon Parks. Christian's work has been published in major magazines, including the New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Vogue, and New York Magazine.
Tell us a little about your background – what path led you to becoming a photographer, and to doing what you’re doing today?
My father is a figurative painter so I grew up with a strong sense of the arts thru watching him paint and the photo centric books he would have me look at. Ironically, none of this really translated until I was 16 years old when I took a photography class in high school. But the visual and emotional caché that resurfaced from my subconscious came roaring back. It was like l was struck by lightning and knew then and there that I would become a photographer. I borrowed my father’s Olympus OM-1 with a 50mm lens and began my quest to develop a personal vision. After high school I attended Syracuse University in Upstate New York and entered into their photography program. I soon set off to New York City during the summer breaks, the Mecca for photography, to pursue internships and to assist big name photographers. After leaving the university and moving to Manhattan, I secured a full-time assistant position with the photographer Annie Leibovitz in 1989. Thereafter, I freelance assisted many different photographers, known and unknown, Bruce Webber and Peter Lindberg among them. After 4-5 years of assisting I made the nerve racking leap as an independent photographer in the Big City. With a strong portrait portfolio, I attracted the attention of photo editors at Vanity Fair, the New York Times Magazine and Vibe. It was like hitting the ground running. My career exploded.
My very first serious photographic project happened when I arrived in Manhattan in 1988 and felt compelled to portrait-document some of the unique characters of this city. I had an odd sense they would all disappear! I called it "New York City Portraits", photographed in glorious B&W with a large, handheld medium format film camera. I decided to bring two cloth backgrounds, a black and a white one to photograph my subjects against. In this way | would eliminate distractions and solely focus on features, gestures and fragments. I had seen this in early 19th Century explorer photography and later the mesmerizing portraits of August Sander. Natural light was, and often still is my sole form of illumination. I began this series in 1990/91 while still an assistant photographer in need to express my vision. It has become part of a much larger photographic document which I call "Portraits From Earth". These portraits entwine the past, present and uncertain future, photographed over a 30 year period in several continents. This mosaic of faces, something of a time capsule, shows the extraordinary in the ordinary and the humanity in everyone on planet Earth. Trends come and go but we remain ethical and moral beings. This body of work is my photographic proof that the past and present informs visions of the future as we know it on earth.
Can you tell us a bit more about the tools you use to create you art?
In the beginning, like most photographers I used the 35mm format to record, but at the university I was quickly introduced to the excitement of capturing portraits with a medium format camera. In New York I had my trusted Nikon FE2 but saved up enough money to buy the Mamiya RZ Pro system. I still own that camera, but have purchased various other medium and large format cameras over the years. For example, I love my Rolleiflex SL66 square format camera with its Carl Zeiss primes. In addition, I prize my 4”x5” Linhoff Technika Classic. I still shoot personal work in analog, but have become quite adept at using my dslr Nikon D800, also with Zeiss prime lenses. For my motion work I own two BMPCC OG super 16mm digital film cameras, plus my older Panasonic GH4 incase I need to shoot slow motion.
How would you describe your work?
My approach to photographing people is an easy, no hassle “be just as you are” approach. I know what I do best in my effort to extract some kind of essence from my subject. I don’t bark. I engage and respect my subject. I aim to earn their trust before I even pick up the camera.
Which other photographers, designers, artists or creative people are you loving at the moment?
There is much important and beautiful work being created nowadays. But I’m rarely truly inspired by any one artist. The movie NIGHTCRAWLER, however is one of modern time’s most brilliant film thrillers and find much inspiration in the acting, editing, lighting, color grading and sound design.
© Pictures by Christian Witkin