Raphael Noz
Self-Portraits With Strangers

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People come and go in Raphael Noz's photographs, unaware that the strange, little man holding an object out in front of him is taking their picture. He encounters his subjects crossing a street, at a bus stop, or in a park, but they are, in most cases, oblivious to what he is doing.

Shutterbug: What prompted your unusual approach to portraiture?

Raphael Noz: I first seriously started photographing when I went to the Carnival of Venice in 1985. I was shooting quickly, getting pictures I didn't even remember taking. Several years later I was taking pictures on my skateboard, kind of vigilante style, and did some of my best work.

SB: What was the appeal for you working so rapidly?

RN: Often by the time I think about pictures, the image is gone. My heart works much quicker than my mind. There is a kind of instantaneous confluence of elements, people, and stuff in my pictures and they are often removed from the context. For instance, I photographed a woman in a crosswalk with white lines. The image is from the waist down and she is clutching a Life magazine. All you see is a flowing dress and feet in the crosswalk and this bag with the word Life. It is an amazing photograph and if I had stopped and thought about it, it would have been too late.

SB: What attracted you to this subject?

RN: It was the movement and the way she clutched this bag with the word Life on it. I often look at how people relate to mythology, like gods and goddesses, demons and angels. The most powerful myths are mostly ones that are not that clear, yet have a spiritual power you may not immediately recognize. Like in Italy, where the streets were such an incredible backdrop setting for the carnival. Then in walked these creatures in costume, not like our Halloween where somebody is Superman or a witch. Their power was that you couldn't identify them. It was like "I am the color blue--I am a powerful spirit--a being who may be dangerous to you." I was fascinated by these people who didn't speak, yet had human eyes. In our culture we often remove the power and mystery of things, and people need that.

SB: This kind of mystery is apparent in your work. The strangers you introduce appear as an extension of you, though there is no true resemblance--like a double exposure. Can you explain this phenomena?

RN: When I got those images back what struck me was how similar I actually looked to a lot of the people behind me. Our expressions were alike, yet differed from photo to photo. It was alarming because unlike looking through a camera and taking a picture, I had no idea what I was going to get. All I could see was the reflection off my polarizing filter.

SB: What generated this idea?

RN: I was getting negative responses taking pictures of people on the street and felt like I was violating them. The idea occurred to me that if I held the camera out from my body, I was no longer a person taking pictures. My camera is fully manual and I was constantly adjusting it, so I would hold my arm out from my body as far as I could and focus the camera on myself, adjusting the light meter, which would read my hand as medium gray. Then I would try to get the same distance from the people I was photographing. They might be standing at a bus stop in a composed, relaxed way and I would get close to them, kind of backing into them, but not physically bumping them. By holding the camera out in front of me, people would see the camera in a disinterested way and just long enough for me to take the picture. With my face an arm's length away, 21/2' from the camera, I knew I could get at least another 2' behind me in focus. It was difficult because I had a very limited focal range since working very close-up, the depth of field gets much shorter.

SB: What did you hope to convey by putting yourself in the photograph?

RN: It was almost a sympathetic reaction like I am not just taking your picture--I am taking our picture--I am part of this.

SB: Yet no one appears to be looking at the camera.

RN: Occasionally I would see someone walking down the street and run to move alongside and take a picture. In one image the woman is annoyed by my presence, scowling because I am almost bumping into her, but in another I was not even noticed. It was of a homeless woman who was pacing back and forth behind a bench where I sat. I knew this would be an interesting photograph and I waited for my shot as she walked back and forth.

SB: Isn't anyone curious about what you are doing?

RN: No--there is this unspoken thing where people just watch me. Once I found a guy who had been watching me take photographs and when I got the film back I realized he was flipping me off. It disturbed me. It was a powerful image, but I don't like to elicit that kind of behavior and then capitalize on bringing out negative feelings in people. It is not my interest in photography.

SB: What is your main focus?

RN: The best thing I could say is that I am exploring things that interest me. Sometimes I am not even sure what they are until I get my work back. It takes courage to allow myself to explore something cognitively and not be sure of just what it is. But I gather my information, look at it, and then I understand.

SB: You mean it is an afterthought?

RN: It has to be for me because when I try to orchestrate things, I come back with orchestrated photographs that are straightforward and literal, boring images.

SB: Are you looking for things your eye does not see at first?

RN: I am beginning to. What I am finding that troubles me is that people say, "you looked overweight" or "your hair was different," things like that, and I kind of write those people off. I am not trying to take photographs that look like Bruce Weber's hunky men. That does not interest me. I want an honest look with my subject not thinking about being photographed and I am proud that these photographs communicate that to the viewer. I remember when I took them--I thought about how Andy Warhol did these films in the '60s, photographing someone for 15 minutes. It was brilliant because eventually they worked out all their little ego things and there was just this blank person staring at you. So that is what happened to me--I remember having the same blank face because I was not thinking so much of the image. I was thinking about backing into a person or is the camera right? Is the depth of field okay?

SB: What kind of response have you had to these photographs?

RN: There have been many. The one that matters is when people see the similarity between my subjects and myself because that is what I got from them, too. Some people say, "Is that you? Boy, you were heavier then." I have to explain that when you take a picture at arm's length you can't expect a very flattering image. I want them to get beyond the fact that my head is so big.

SB: What does your equipment consist of?

RN: A very simple Pentax K1000 with a standard 50mm lens and no flash. In these images I didn't focus much on the f/stop, but pushed the film half a stop to get the highlights and shadows. I used Plus-X film 125 and photographed on overcast days for the soft modeling light, using a polarizing filter which gave me a little reflection of what was going on behind me.

SB: How do these images hold up for you as portraits as you know portraits?

RN: They go back and forth, my subject being kind of a portrait of me and I of them. Portraiture in general tends to be a form of flattery, not always of course, and these are not flattering. They are kind of abrupt and awkward really--and in some ways obnoxious. Some people want to push me out of the frame. Hopefully, when you see enough of the images together you can see me as just a stationary object. However, it is very important that I am there because that interaction is what the pictures are about. So they are different from most portraits. When telling people what I'm doing, I tell them I'm doing self-portraits with strangers. It suggests an unsuspected bonding between human beings and that on some levels we are almost alike. Part of the whole idea is about the stranger that is within all of us, those that we overlook or don't want to see and the ones we don't need to see.

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