Barbara Bordnick, the internationally renowned fashion and portrait photographer, began her career in Copenhagen and Paris before returning to New York in 1968 where her photography in Harper’s Bazaar began drawing acclaim.
Over the past thirty years, Ms Bordnick has received numerous honors and awards for her film and print work including Clios for film and print, Nikon award, Art Directors’ Club Awards, Missouri School of Journalism Award. In 1978 Polaroid Corporation awarded Bordnick the commission to introduce their large format Polacolor film. She produced a 1979 calendar of 8X10 Polacolor portraits documenting great women in jazz titled “A Song I can See.”
Ms Bordnick’s works are in the permanent collections of the International Center of Photography, the Gilman Paper Collection in New York, The Portland Museum of Art (Maine), the Polaroid Collection in Massachusetts. She recently served three terms as the president of the Advertising Photographers of New York
Her work has appeared in publications including the New York Times Magazine, Harpers Bazaar, Life, Newsweek, Fortune, Vogue Francais, Geo, Vanity Fair. In addition to her photography, Bordnick is a much-sought-after lecturer. She also exhibits, is widely collected and is featured regularly by the media such as the NBC News, ABC “Good Morning America” and a PBS American Masters Series on Richard Avedon.
Barbara Bordnick’s recognition has lead to commissions of her photography for annual reports, image and product advertising campaigns for companies including IBM, Merrill Lynch, American Express, Chase Manhattan Bank, Avon, Johnson & Johnson, Procter and Gamble, Revlon, Bristol Myer, and DuPont.
This conversation was first seen in the March/April, 2000 issue of View Camera magazine.
John Paul Caponigro You said, “I photograph the nude as I would like to be touched.” That’s really lovely. The gaze can be a touch. Tell me more about this if you can.
Barbara Bordnick The nude is a very evocative study, both sensual and erotic. It’s a landscape and movement that captivate and inspire me. Perhaps it’s the way the light moves over the body and carries the gaze with it. As I follow the light with my eyes it seems as though I can “feel the form” and only when it’s the way I want to be touched does it please me. That’s the photograph I want to make.
JPC I wonder if you think there is a quality a woman is more apt to bring to the process of photographing the nude?
BB It’s difficult to generalize, but it seems to be different. The energy is not the same as that sexual energy that is between a man and a woman but there is nevertheless an energy — even a sexual one. My “Nude #1/Alecia” is a photograph that men are enormously attracted to and collect. Perhaps when I come to photograph a nude of a woman I see a certain representation of myself in it. When I photograph nude men, I look for the same sensuous forms that I find in a woman’s body. The strength and power might be different but it’s all about the expression and the lyricism of the body.
Ultimately, I think that the difference between a man photographing the nude and a woman photographing the nude is simply the difference between people. And the difference between men and women.
JPC Do women look at men’s and women’s bodies or the body in general differently?
BB Yes, I think that men and women probably do look at men’s and women’s bodies differently. It would be an interesting study to know how. I do, however, think that most women prefer the female nude body in art to the male nude. That is, of course, apart from the fact that most women prefer to touch a nude man.
JPC How would this dynamic affect portraiture? I think of your photographs of women, particularly the portraits of jazz singers, they have a certain quality about them. I’m not sure one’s individuality is ultimately separable from gender. It’s part of who we are. I think it can be an asset no matter which side of the gender line we’re on, the challenge seems to be in turning it into a positive asset. You’ve done that. How? Remember Steinem said, “If you’re not a feminist you’re a masochist.” Do you agree? And as an aside, while we attempt to make these distinctions we should be mindful that in the larger scope of things we’re not containing one’s character or a characterization of one’s work strictly within the lines of gender.
BB I think you are right about one’s individuality ultimately being inseparable from gender. All of its biological and social implications shape our point of view. And I prefer to think of all art being distinguishable by the artists’ points of view. How I’ve turned it into a positive asset? I like being a woman. And that makes me a feminist. I suppose that not liking myself would make me a masochist. Perhaps that’s what Gloria Steinem means in her statement that you quoted. Nurturing is a very large part of my approach to portraiture. It has always served me well.
Ms Magazine has periodic conferences on feminism or various feminist issues. Since they wanted to have them in a more casual environment than a conference room, they asked if they could use my living room/studio and if I would shoot it. The first one was on the future of feminism, the second on pornography, and the third on late term abortion. They were amazing.
Wonderful people came – Gloria Steinem, Naomi Wolf, Marilyn French, Naomi Wolf, Faye Wattleton, belle hooks, Urvashi Vaid. It was an opportunity to meet these extraordinary women. Although we have several friends in common, I’d never met Gloria Steinem before she came to my studio. As a woman, I am very indebted to her. Beyond that, I always envied her capacity to hold her ground, state her position, argue a point and always remain “acceptable” and “unthreatening” as a woman. She had incredible calm and elegance while talking to someone whose guts she must have hated. She would display extraordinary composure with the most lucid intelligence and make her point ö and usually bury her opponent. It’s a true gift.
JPC One sees certain members of the African American community like that. Martin Luther King and Maya Angelou, are two very visible examples but there are many others. When someone is perceived as being in a ãminorityä position and they still carry themselves with an authoritative dignity and grace it’s really impressive. How inspiring.
BB They don’t take the bait.
Gloria Steinem actually helped me make an important change in my life. It was something I read in her book ö OUTRAGEOUS ACTS AND EVERYDAY REBELLIONS, I believe. It was a chapter she wrote about her relationship with her mother who was often sick and very difficult. She addressed the realization that she never really knew the woman her mother was. She knew her as her mother with all their reactions to each other in their complicated relationship, but she never knew the woman that she was nor her experiences as a woman. Gloria decided that she wanted to know that woman.
When I read that chapter I was moved to tears because at that time I could not have a conversation with my mother without getting into an argument with her. It occurred to me that I, too, had a relationship of only action/reaction with my mother. Here was this woman who had a very difficult life. Born in the Ukraine (which at that time was either part of Russia or Poland depending on who set siege to the town that week), she grew up in extreme poverty and went to a school where they hated, taunted and beat up the Jewish kids. What did it feel like to come to this country, against one’s will, as a teenager, not speaking a word of English and again being ridiculed? She worked most of my life, and indeed most of hers, and I had no idea who she really was. Undoubtedly, although she would disagree, her life was more extraordinary than mine.
I finished the book then called my mom and said “I’m coming to see you and we’re going to go to lunch, just the two of us.ä And everything was different. Although she said and did the same things, they no longer bothered me and because I reacted differently I was not threatening to her. Everything changed and I believe that because of Gloria Steinem I now have a wonderful relationship with my mother.
When Gloria was here, I told her the story, with a lump in my throat, and how much I felt I owed her. She replied “If I never sell another book this will have been enough. “When I photographed her she was sixty years old and she looked not a day older than forty. I told her I couldn’t believe that she was sixty. She said “you know what the best thing about this time of life is? That you’re no longer ruled by your hormones.” The studio full of women went up in laughter. Those of us that are still governed by our hormones knew what she was talking about and couldn’t believe it ends; those of us that no longer were, knew exactly what she was talking about.
China Machado is probably one of the most beautiful women of the century. She’s the Asian model in a lot of early Avedon pictures. She was editor of Harper’s Bazaar, where I first met her, then she was the fashion director of LEARS, a magazine by Frances Lear for the woman over 40 (the first of its kind). China and I worked together for over four years at LEARS, often fighting the entire fashion industry to get attention and validation, never mind respect, for this “older” woman, and we became very good friends. Because she’s been blessed with extraordinary beauty, she’s had incredible opportunity, but she’s one of the most gracious people I know.
I learned about graciousness from her. It’s not incompatible with strength. I continue to surround myself with many generations. Women have so much to learn from each other.
JPC In many ways you’re a trailblazer for women in photography.
BB I was the first woman fashion photographer in a generation. Then came Sarah Moon in Paris. Then Deborah Turberville. Sheila Metzner came a while after, she started late. We were the first. There are so many stories about being a woman in this business at that time. The things people used to say! Like “Oh we used a woman last year.” Can you imagine anyone saying, “We used a man last year.”? Once, my rep told me that one art director asked another at his agency, “Have you ever worked with Barbara Bordnick?” The other said, “Yes.” He hadn’t. The first said, “You know, she has a mind of her own.” If anyone had told me that one day this statement, which is such a compliment, could mean something negative about me.
JPC Tell me about the Polaroid project?
BB I’ve always loved Polaroid film. The color is so unorthodox… it has a palette of its own. In 1977, Polaroid asked if I would be interested in trying a new large format (8X10) Polacolor film they were introducing. I should say that I believe at that time women seemed to have a much freer sense of color and its interpretation. Today, when I talk to the film manufacturers who proudly show me their new films, I tell them that they think in a very sexist way: they are always trying to get films that have finer grain and “realer” color and, if you look at women fashion photographers, we usually try to get grainier film having nothing to do with color as anyone else perceives it. I think that’s one of the reasons why several of us have worked in Polaroid. So, when Polaroid asked me I said I’d love to. The problem was that I’d never used a view camera. They suggested that I hire an assistant who knows the camera and rent the equipment and they’d pick up the tab. They’d send down their technicians for their part. I said, “As long as I don’t have to know what I’m doing, it’s a deal.”
That’s how it started. I was exclusively a 35mm shooter; I didn’t even shoot medium format then. Imagine me pulling out an 8X10 Polaroid and peeling it apart. Gigantic instant image! I was hooked. Several other photographers were testing the film as well but they were mostly tabletop photographers. Hardly anyone else shot 8X10. The work I was doing was completely different. Polaroid loved what I was doing. And it was much more fun to hang around my studio; there were beautiful women not products. I kept shooting and they kept buying the photographs so it was a perfectly happy situation. And great fun.
They said “We have to introduce this to the commercial market. Why don’t you make a proposal?” This was a time when Polaroid was a very elegant company. Laurence Olivier was doing the TV spots for their Alpha camera. I photographed women almost all the time and, since I was recently separated, I’d hoped to come up with a project which would allow me to meet fabulous men. Alas, I couldn’t find a group that hadn’t already been photographed so I tried to think of something mysterious with women. Sean Callahan, then editor of American Photographer, suggested jazz singers, and when I asked him for a list of names I could put a face to only two of them. At this time there was no LOOK and LIFE had stopped publishing, so there were no magazines for beautiful portraiture except the fashion magazines. There were Time and Newsweek but that was journalism….different. I’m talking about great portraiture, like Arnold Newman and Irving Penn do. When I thought of great male jazz performers I instantly thought of Philippe Halsman’s and Art Kane’s portraits of Louis Armstrong and so many others. I felt that the reason the women hadn’t been photographed was because they were in their fifties, that terrible age where America puts woman out to pasture. Women were photographed for two reasons: one, they were so overwhelmingly popular that magazines have to cover them no matter what they look like or two, they were a rack for clothes (like Cher or Streisand). These women did not fall into those categories.
And jazz was not popular in this country then (although it is our only indigenous art form). So I proposed to do a calendar of great women in jazz. Polaroid loved the idea and I produced what was called A SONG I CAN SEE, a calendar for 1979. Once I decided to photograph women, I wanted the extraordinary woman that they were, not the public image. The stories behind these photographs are amazing. They shared stories. Here’s a guest book from the people I photographed. Every time I get depressed I pull this out. Here’s one from the then-Vice President of Polaroid, Peter Wensberg, “Dear Barbara, I always thought that beauty is as beauty does but now I know it’s what you do”.
JPC Thatâs very nice. What’s interesting about being behind the lens?
BB The most interesting thing about being behind the lens is that it’s your own private world. That box, it’s between you and the world. There’s a safety in that. There’s a safety in being a voyeur. It allows you an intimacy that you would never dare to have otherwise. Portraiture for me is the most difficult kind of photography because it assumes so much. It’s such presumption to think that you could capture something of someone that you don’t know (usually you don’t know these people), that you can capture something that is so universal, evoke such an emotional reaction between you and that person, that it will move other people the same way. To find something so basic to who we are, how we feel, and how we react, that other people will be moved by it, if not in exactly the same way, in some way. Through some intrinsic truth. Even if the photograph isn’t true something about the interaction is true. What’s true about photography? There’s no ‘truth’ in photography. The only thing true about photography is that you were there. And not even that anymore!
The 8×10 camera was a completely different experience. When you’re behind the box, be it 35mm or 2 1/4, that’s where you’re directing from and that’s where you’re experiencing from. When I shoot 8×10 my face is right next to the lens. When they react to me I am dead on. A lot of the reaction is to my eyes. Angela Lansbury said something about my twinkling eyes. Subjects would react to my posture around the camera. It’s very interesting.
JPC So there’s a bit of theater going on. Photography is theater, the world’s the stage.
BB Always. Always. That’s why it’s so difficult to photograph photographers. When you photograph photographers you suddenly hear what you’re saying, and you never seemed to hear before. You know they know. You can’t say, “Look in here like you can’t find me.” All of your lines sound ridiculous. I get embarrassed just thinking about it. Your clothes are off. You have to do something else.
Jay Maisel and I were very good friends when I photographed him for American Photography. When he thought the shoot was over he said, “I looked good right? I was great wasn’t I? I did everything I was supposed to do? I behaved myself?” I looked at him and said, “You were the most controlling SOB .” His reaction to that remark was the photograph! I told the magazine they could only have it if they used it for the cover. Of course you don’t put photographers on the cover of photo magazines; you put naked ladies on the covers of them, right? Makes sense. It was the first photographer on the cover of a photo magazine.
JPC Interesting we have to be disarmed to get real in front of the camera.
BB Well, people are so uncomfortable in front of the camera. No one more than I. Plus, I get furious that people can’t make me look as good as I make other people look. So I become unreasonable because I instantly start to not trust them. And I’m not terribly photogenic.
JPC Oh come on, that’s not true. Can I put this theory to test?
JPC How much of photographing people, portraiture or the nude is about helping them feel comfortable or safe?
BB Itâs everything, for me. And that’s what I work very hard at. Call it the Jewish Mother in me. I want to create an environment safe enough for them to be whomever they wish to be or show me. I know that some photographers are very creative with tension and really create a tense, almost hostile situation. That’s not my way.
JPC What understanding do you a woman behind the lens bring to photographing a woman in front of the lens?
BB Compassion. As a woman I understand that society’s demands of women are so much more unrealistic than of men. And admiration.