I always believe that a portrait is as much a reflection of the artist as it is of the subject. My first exposure to Joyce Tenneson – voted one of 10 most influential women photographers in history by American Photo – was in college. I was fascinated by her imagery, how they mirrored the complexity of life, with a composition that felt soft and ethereal and yet contained a deep, dark mystery.
Before my interview with Joyce, I was so excited to connect with her I couldn’t sleep at all! Questions crowded my mind – I wanted to know more about the artist described as “one of America’s most interesting portrayers of the human character.” When I finally talked to her, I was inspired to learn how her personal tragedies have allowed her to explore the human character with greater empathy and artistic finesse. Enter the mind of this legendary portrait photographer as I wander into her complex inner world.
Visit Joyce Tenneson’s website at www.joycetenneson.com.
CH: You once called yourself a voyeur and said you don’t attach a negative connotation to the term. How has voyeurism positively affected your work?
JT: When I used that quote, I mean I love people and I’m always watching them because I’m curious about them. I love to see what makes people tick and I’ve always been curious about how we’re all different – how we’re all the same but slightly different. I pick up on people in general quite quickly because it’s something I’m interested in and have been interested in it all my life. Like any kind of skill, you sharpen when you practice it a lot.
CH: How does your work reflect who you are as a human being?
JT: I think people find a signature style – to do work that comes from a deep place within them and reflects who they are in some way. Irving Penn and Richard Avedon were both great portrait photographers, from the same ethnic background. They both lived in New York City and worked for major magazines. Yet their work looks so different. Why did it look so different? It’s because they were different. Penn had such an elegant, almost European presence. So his work had that kind of formal elegance. Whereas Avedon had a wiry, complicated, edgy presence.
In my early 20s, I started with self-portraits and I found that who I am is constantly changing. My interest in the Wise Women project came because as I was getting older, I was wondering ‘Oh, what is it going to be for me when I get over 60?’ A lot of my projects have come because of who I am and my interests. I supervise a lot of students at art schools and universities. It almost seems to be a rite of passage for them to do self-portraits, particularly for women artists.
CH: In your Amazing Men series featuring prominent male celebrities, there is a sense of softness and vulnerability. How do you bring out this side of your subjects?
JT: I showed them some of my work, so they already get a sense that I’m looking for something more internal and less of a mask. I actually tell them, I’m looking for something more than just an external mask that we all wear every day. I say it in a laughing kind of way, so it’s not threatening.
CH: Celebrity clients can be a handful sometimes. What are your tips on making the most out of a celebrity shoot?
JT: By being really prepared when they come in, having everything set up, giving yourself time to really be quiet before they get there; so you’re not frazzled. Even if it’s just 5 minutes, spend some time alone, without your assistants around… So that when they arrive, you’re not caught up with preparations or who they are, you’re just coming to meet them from a more quiet space.
I do tell them what I want. I try to show the inner person, so I’m not afraid to say, ‘You’ve seen my work and you know that I love to probe below the surface. Even though we have a short amount of time today, I’m hoping that I will have some kind of a collaboration and do something that we’re both pleased with.’ Do it in a friendly, playful way, so that it doesn’t freak them out or they think that I’m some weirdo.
CH: In one interview, you said that you were so depressed about your life at that time that you considered suicide, but decided to put off dying until the end of the semester so as not to leave your students in the lurch. Where does that sense of responsibility come from?
JT: It came from the way I was brought up. I didn’t come from a wealthy family. I was made to feel responsible for the family. I never had a sense of entitlement, but I do remember being that person, when I was in my 20s, and you know how you think you’re never going to get through the next week practically and no less the year. Yet, when we look back at that now, we know what a difference a day makes or can make right? That’s why it’s always so sad when you hear about teen suicides. They don’t have the experience that things could change within a day, a week, or they lose a love or are dumped… they feel they’ll never love again. People can recuperate from those things.
CH: How has your depression affected you as an artist? Do you use that darkness for your art? Do you ever fear that your artistic prowess depends on that innate turmoil?
JT: A lot of artists have that fear and I don’t think it’s true. It’s more upsetting to think we wouldn’t be working because you wouldn’t have the energy because you’re depressed. I don’t think that stuff ever goes away. I just think you manage it better. I still have bouts of depression – more than other people. That’s who I am and I have to manage it. It doesn’t mean it’s gone forever, it just means that it’s managing it better and having more insight – not become a victim of it. That’s why we go into therapy because sometimes we feel like we’re going down a hole and we’re watching ourselves. We don’t want to go too far and we know that’s not good for us.
CH: Do you feel that what you’ve been through added to your work?
JT: I do, I really do. The reason I’m such a people person is because I empathize so much with others, because I’ve gone through a lot myself. I don’t feel holier than anybody, I feel ‘there but the grace of God, go I.’ My wonderful partner David, who was a talented film director, passed away 2 years ago. We had been together 20 years. I was just crushed – more than I could have imagined. That was when I went back into therapy again for a year. But I have really grown from that, and now I’m so much more empathetic toward people who’ve had that kind of loss. Every time you go through something, it opens a whole new door of empathy. We’re lucky that we feel those things. We may not be lucky we’re prone to depression, but it comes with the territory, it seems. I have two sisters I’m close to and they are not prone to depression. We talked about it before – it’s genetic. It has to be. It’s diminished in certain times in my life, but it’s always there. That’s probably what makes us more complex artists.
CH: You are such a phenomenal artist as well as a savvy business woman. How do you balance the two roles? And how do you maintain artistic integrity with the business side of your studio?
JT: I’ve never had a sugar daddy and I’ve always had to make a living, so I learned how to balance. Although I must say, the last couple years that I was in New York, I really got out of balance. Now, I’m more in balance. It’s a constant struggle. A lot of times, people who don’t have to pay their own bills are not as productive because they don’t have to manage their time well. We have to be aware that it’s part of life, to balance and to take time for ourselves. I get up first thing in the morning and do a gratitude prayer, and try to center myself and balance. I have a to-do list every day, which I start the day before, and I try to get the hard work done in the morning when my mind is good. I do try to carve out time for myself, and this afternoon, I’m seeing an energy healer whom I see regularly after I finished my talk therapy.
I find that very helpful, just committing to the hour, the money, I try to do that every other week. Now when I’m in town, I make a commitment to being in balance. It’s just being aware – and yes, I do need to have everything done, so I have an assistant who comes in every morning before hours and hack away at it so that I force myself to get it done. Get the business part out of the way, so I have time to do things that are more important spiritually.
CH: Any last minute thoughts for photographer readers?
JT: Those of us who work with people, to photograph people, it’s just a really wonderful life. Sometimes, we get so bogged down by the day-to-day things such as when we have difficult clients that we don’t really see how wonderful it is to be invited into people’s lives. It’s a great career – can you imagine being at a desk somewhere crunching numbers all day? Every career has its pros and cons. We’re very blessed to be in this – we are around families, people and meeting new people all the time and getting inside into their lives. It’s a really great life – I just feel so happy that I chose this rather than something else. Or it chose me – whatever it is. It doesn’t mean that it’s all easy and perfect – but I don’t think anything is.