The word intimate is often overused in photography, but there really isn’t any other way to describe Gary Schneider’s on-again, off-again series “Heads.” Lying down on mats, cushions, and black velvet underneath Schneider’s large-format camera, the subjects are then “exposed” over eight minutes by a tiny light Schneider uses to explore around their heads.
Schneider, who grew up in South Africa and moved to New York for graduate school, began the series in 1988. At first, he shot in black and white and took two portraits that lasted roughly half an hour each, but when he started working on the series again a few years later, he switched to color film and “a tighter script.” After setting the aperture, Schneider begins exposing the hair, followed by the forehead, down the side of the face and then up the left side.
“For me, it’s very psychological,” Schneider said. “We’re in a dark space, it’s very intimate and it’s very structured but it becomes very personal because each person has a unique relationship to me and we engage in an activity together.”
Inspired by the 19th-century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron’s portraits of closely cropped heads, Schneider said the “performative” aspect of the portrait session includes his counting the exposure time out loud, which creates a meditative atmosphere. He only asks the subjects to gaze toward the lens and said he has different strategies to avoid “camera face” when he senses they are trying to pose. Apart from the counting, that includes making comments and directing the subjects to blink while he’s exposing their individual eyes.
“I’m trying to dissipate that activity,” he said. “It’s the unfamiliarity of the setup that adds to the performance I’m getting from that person.”
Over the 20 years he worked on the series, Schneider took breaks of roughly five years between the three sets of images, partly because other things became a priority, and also because he needed a break. He said he continues to be drawn to them because he feels there is always so much to discover with them.
“These portraits really feel vulnerable, don’t they? The terrible part of portraiture, especially contemporary portraiture, is the ability of finding the intimate moment with your subject that translates to your experience. So that’s what I’m trying to find but in an abstract way. When the people I photograph look at their portrait, it doesn’t look like them exactly but it feels like them and that’s a big part of these for both of us.”