“A Moment” with Michael Somoroff

On the one hand, Michael Somoroff’s latest publication, “A Moment. Master Photographers: Portraits by Michael Somoroff”, is somewhat of a name game – this grouping of portraits represents a serious “Who’s Who” of great 20th Century photographers: Brassaï, Lartigue, Penn, Avedon, Kertesz…and the list goes on. But Somoroff’s photography isn’t solely concerned with his photographic mentors, influences, and models. For Somoroff, as he explains below, the most important factor is the moment, the relationship between humans, and the “Truth”…

"A Moment" with Michael Somoroff

Brassaï, Paris, 1983, Copyright© Michael Somoroff

You have a rather long history with photography. Can you explain your initial connection with the art?

Yes, more than 50 years. My father was arguably one of most important American still life photographers of the 20st Century. He was a student of Alexey Brodovitch and he came to NY as part of a group of photographers called the “Philadelphia School”, which included his colleague’s Irving Penn,  Arnold Newman, Louis Faurer, Ben Rose, Isador Possoff and Sol Mednick.

I grew up in the studio and by the time I was nine, I was “working” part time of course, for my father, Ben Rose and Louis Faurer. By the time I was 12 or 14, I was assisting on set. I shot my first magazine assignment at 16.

"A Moment" with Michael Somoroff
Andreas Feininger, New York City, 1980, Copyright© Michael Somoroff

Many people and artists have inspired your work throughout the years – Brodovitch, Penn, Avedon, Brassaï, and your father Ben Somroff to name a few. Do you think your photo work involves some visual traces from these mentors?

Of course. I think there are a number of people who certainly had a profound influence. I’m sure that an analysis of my work would lead one to see striking similarities in the formal language that has been co-opted. Certainly Irving Penn was a huge influence, as was Richard Avedon. Avedon was actually involved with launching my career.

Andreas Feininger and Brassaï came later and were particularly supportive when I began exploring movement in my nudes and portraits. I have yet to exhibit the nudes  – that’s next maybe. August Sander had a profound affect on my work and led to bodies of work I produced like “Absence of Subject”, which was shown in Venice last year during the biennale. I’m actually represented in the gallery of the great-grandson of August Sander, Julian Sander.

"A Moment" with Michael Somoroff
André Kertész,Paris, 1982, Copyright© Michael Somoroff

How has philosophy played a role in your photography? In particular, what kinds of philosophical structures are present in your photography?

The whole subject evolved because, as an artist, I was searching for a way of communicating deeper truths to others. This immediately opens a Pandora’s box of “What is Truth?” Very early, I got into a philosophical inquiry about Truth, was it is and how do we as a culture express and identify it. I studied a lot of different philosophy. Here again I have many influences; Hegel certainly would have been one as well as post-modernists like Derrida, Bataie.

I’m also a very serious student of religion. For over thirty years, I’ve been studying Kabbalah. That’s made a very great contribution to my work. Although I’m a photographer, my work is about intimacy and connecting with the heart. I see the practice of photography as a way of “loving my fellow as myself”, a way of reaching out to others – a way of communion. On the occasion that I’m graced with the good fortune of capturing some connection between myself and a subject, I end up with a photograph more about my relationship to somebody rather than just a picture of another person. That is the distinctive quality of my portraiture: all my portraits are portraits of relationships, not portraits of specific people.

"A Moment" with Michael Somoroff
Ralph Gibson, New York City, 1980, Copyright© Michael Somoroff

An Irving Penn quote serves as an introduction to this body of portraits on your website. “A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it, it is in one word, effective.” What truths do you feel your portraits communicate?

Just to clarify, that selection was done by Diana Edkins, a wonderful curator and author who wrote the textual introductions to the various parts of the website. But it obviously does reflect my values.

My understanding of truth is as the all-inclusive fact of “Being.” Being is the only truth. Relative truth is nothing more than an opinion. The only “TRUTH” means that which can be seen from any point in time, from any perspective, and it always remains the same. The only experience that fulfills that definition of Truth is “BEING” itself.

This is reflected in my work from a subjective point of view: the only experience that one can have with “BEING” is through one’s connection with others. It is our collective consciousness that actually equals “BEING”.

When I photograph somebody, I look to capture that moment of “BEING” between us.

"A Moment" with Michael Somoroff
Jacques Henri Lartigue, Paris, 1983, Copyright© Michael Somoroff

In your most recent book, “A Moment. Master Photographers: Portraits by Michael Somoroff”, you state: “To be clear, first and foremost…. I am a photographer.” What different meanings does this phrase imply for you? What does it mean to be a photographer?

In the last decade in particular, there has been a lot of misunderstanding about my work. Because I’ve done large-scale installations for places like the Rothko Chapel, people have gotten the idea that I’m a sculptor, or a video artist, or an installation artist.  The fact of the matter is that these different mediums are all an outgrowth of my work as a photographer.

For example, “Illumination” was the result of a computer program that I helped author. It allows me to transform light captured photographically into a CAD models or sculptural images which then can be produced sculpturally. I call them “photo-plastics”. Eventually I was able to advance that program so that I was able to capture time, and translate that into a CAD model as it relates to any moving object. It’s like an extension of Morey as Thomas Ruff has pointed out. Thomas was one of the first to comment on this work in writing. Once I have the CAD models in virtual space I can translate them into real sculptural objects.

When you look at my sculptural work, you are being confronted with a three-dimensional expression of the spiritual dimension of a photographic image. You are communing with a more essential dimension of the photographic event – a “real time” event. It’s a totally new expression. It has also been totally misunderstood as a result.

On the part of my dealers, art historians, and curators, there has been no way to explain as of yet this particular success to the public because people haven’t been making the connection between this work and my original platform of photography. Many people are only familiar with my more recent work and don’t know I was a photographer first. That was one of the reasons that my publisher insisted on this new book. It reconnects me with the public to my photographic roots.

I still consider myself fundamentally a photographer. All the creative work that I do in different mediums is, in one way or another, an expression of my background in photography.

"A Moment" with Michael Somoroff
Jeanloup Sieff, Paris, 1983, Copyright© Michael Somoroff

This new book is a collection of images you took thirty-five years back – images that represent intimate moments and were not taken with the intent of being published. So why release these images now?

My father passed away 27 years ago and I was feeling the pressure of taking care of his work. We began to properly archive and manage that body of work and it become very costly. So I added my own work to the project so that I could consolidate resources. This gave us an archive that goes back some 80 years in photography at a pretty accomplished level.

We discovered that there were 19 complete bodies of work that I have produced that have never been published or exhibited. This project was one of them.

There was a great excitement about these portraits, particularly on the part of Bill Ewing, who ended up writing the text. People felt that I had inadvertently done a portrait of a time, a “moment” in the history of photography.  All of these portraits were executed right before the computer came on the scene. This meant that I had a portrait of the climax of analog photography, which is why the book is called “A Moment”.

"A Moment" with Michael Somoroff
Helmut Newton, Monaco, 1983, Copyright© Michael Somoroff

In addition to your personal projects, you’ve worked extensively in commercial photography around the world. What have been some of the more memorable commercial jobs?

There have been a lot. I have an archive of portraits alone done for magazine publishers like Conde Nast, Hearst, Guner and Jahr and many others that is 400 portraits deep. I’ve shot everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Milton Glaser. Obviously, the opportunity to meet these fantastic contributors to our culture was very exciting and has been very fulfilling.

I also did a lot of still-life work early in my career for all the major magazines and many advertising agencies: Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Stern, Jaguar, Hugo Boss, Lancaster, Sony – there have been many clients. They were all mostly very unique projects and I could never say which was most memorable. They were mostly all interesting, which is why I kept shooting and still do – I love the work.

I’ve been very privileged to work in the commercial world both as a photographer and a Director at the highest levels of these fields. I’ve very much enjoyed that opportunity. As I said, I’d call it a privilege.

"A Moment" with Michael Somoroff
Robert Doisneau, Paris, 1983, Copyright© Michael Somoroff

What are some of your current projects? Still working commercially?

I still shoot a lot commercially. Thankfully it’s a rather constant schedule of commercial work, especially television commercials. I’m a partner at MacGuffin Films Ltd., one of the top commercial production companies in the world, and have been for 25 years.

 Interview by LG