importance of being cover


Christopher Felver’s last large collection of black-and-white photographic portraits was received with considerable acclaim; now there’s a new one, and it’s even bigger and even better. In Angels, Anarchists & Gods (1996), Felver imaged a wide variety of artistic and literary celebres in a range of stances and poses: Claes Oldenberg and wife Coosje van Bruggen, either side of a soft vacuum cleaner, full-length; a smilingly sad Richard Brautigan close-up, two years before suicide; a long shot of George Whitman in front of his Shakespeare & Co., Paris; David Hockney, seated in outrageous get-up, San Francisco Art Institute Doctor of Fine Arts diploma in hand.

Felver’s new collection, The Importance of Being, from Arena Editions, gathers over twice as many photographs of writers and artists (a few, not many, repeated from the earlier volume). Unlike in the 1996 omnibus, each subject makes a single appearance, almost always solo, and all appear in alphabetical order, as if in a visual dictionary, each image defining its subject. Stylistically, both volumes reflect Felver’s preference for frontality and an even eye-to-eye relationship with his subjects. “My only requirement is that they look me in the eye,” he tells photography dealer and curator David Fahey in an interview, which brackets the imaged pages. Shots are taken in the typical Felver manner, usually in a session of some few minutes, under natural light, without the intervention of a stylist, without “tricks”; the faces, as he once said, bear “the lines they’ve earned.”

For Felver, photographs are unpretentious; they are not high fashion. They exhibit none of the darkness, grain, and high contrast of Josef Koudelka’s gypsies, or the stark realism of Mary Ellen Mark. They’re less extreme and friendlier than the tightly framed portraits by Irving Penn. Though Felver’s are often site-specific (except for full close-ups), he doesn’t seek to engulf sitters in their work, as for example Arnold Newman does in his 1980 Artists. Nor does he display a strong photojournalistic element, à la Eisenstaedt, capturing a particularly dramatic or historic moment. Rather, his images are the result of an immediate and highly intuitive chemistry between photographer and subject; without the aid or crutch of a highlighted familiar environment or pyrotechnics or riveting situation, we are challenged to behold iconic faces anew, as they emerge from an independent relationship found only within these pages. Through these portraits, the viewer feels the affective bond between subject and artist.

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Finally, some of the best specimens of the human animal show up in The Importance of Being by Christopher Felver. And by this I do not mean the “beautiful people” but the accomplished ones—writers, artists, musicians, activists. No pretense here, just straight-ahead, black and white portraits of a staggering 436 “creative revolutionaries” as Mr. Felver calls them, photographed by him over the past two decades. “My subjects are the people I always wanted to meet,” he writes. Just one degree of separation, and it’s as if we’re meeting them too, everyone from Kathy Acker (“postmodern novelist, biker”) to Franco Zefferelli (“film director”), including Seamus Heaney, Jasper Johns, B.B. King, Arthur Miller, Toni Morrison, Lou Reed, Susan Sontag—even a jolly Ansel Adams.