James Friedman grew up with parents who, while loving and supportive, never expressed their emotions through kissing. Friedman’s father was 48 when he died, and when Friedman’s mother developed emphysema after 40 years of smoking, she spent most of the last months of her life on a ventilator. Friedman spent a lot of time with her in the hospital, and when visiting hours were over, they fell into a routine of kissing each other goodbye. A few hours before she died, Friedman snapped a photograph of the two of them as he gave her a kiss.
A couple years later, Friedman had a dream in which he saw two people kissing; one of the kissers was looking directly at him. Inspired by the dream and of the final image he took of his mother, Friedman set out on a seven-year project called “Pleasures and Terrors of Kissing.”
Aware of the ubiquitous subject matter, Friedman wanted to find a way to separate his photographs from typical shots of people embracing. Although he did find some subjects through chance, Friedman felt he would never have enough time to create a truly candid body of work, so he began to set up the shots—sometimes with people he knew, other times with strangers—by asking people to kiss while he photographed them.
Creating street photography–like images turned out to be a skill he was good at. It was also an inspiring challenge, coupled with trying to avoid schmaltz or cliché.
“I think I do have a skill of getting people together and making them feel comfortable,” he said. “In my view they become authentic street work; it’s a hybrid.”
In addition, Friedman added another narrative to the work by introducing other people or animals into the images. In one of the shots, for example, Friedman noticed two men kissing and asked them to continue while he photographed them. They agreed even as a stranger berated the couple by shouting homophobic slurs at them. He also added himself into the images, often through reflection.
“It’s a clue, an obvious thing, but it’s also about me honoring my mom in a way that visualizes the longing that I felt and still feel for not having that closeness,” he said. “It’s a way of indicating to viewers that I’m part of this; it is personal and there is a testament about this and acknowledgement about my feelings of I would say longing and regret about missing that kind of familiar closeness.”
He said one of the more surprising elements of the work was the ways in which animals responded to his subjects.
“I don’t know why, but a great number of people were kissing, [and] these dogs were all over it. … I don’t know what it is—the dogs were up there nuzzling and very interested and that was a wonderful element.”