Claiborne… O, wow— where to begin. It is staggering + humbling to see your little sister crush a dream/ vision– using sheer talent/ will/ resourcefulness. Her book, American Beauty was published by Assouline, one of the great publishing houses that specializes in exquisite coffee table books. American Beauty was on the cover of Assouline’s 2012 international catalogue, featuring the house’s book offerings for the year.
The allure of Claiborne’s work + this book was that it illuminated the lost art of portraiture + the telling story of a woman’s life, through modern medium and a set of fresh eyes. Many artists have the gift of a magical eye, but very few make people safe enough to want to share their true selves/ their true stories, let alone have it captured/ recorded. And interestingly, that is what makes portraiture so deeply intriguing– it is ultimately proof we were here.
The 100 portraits in American beauty capture each woman’s very best self… Not her 6am self in a robe. Not her Tuesday night self over a stove. Not her weekend self, driving a mini van. The process of the photographer was wholly specific– as every single detail of the portrait told the complete story of the life of each woman… She photographed her subjects wearing their most favorite clothing/ jewelry/ accessories– nuances that started telling her story; while sitting in the environs that best suited/ matched/ soothed their spirits. The end portrait was an exercise in celebrating the sum of the parts that make us all truly individual.
I have always joked, these portraits are the kind of photos you want to have bedside, in the nursing home at 85: proof of the life you so proudly lived + proof you looked damn good, while doing it.
A portrait photographer who sets out to capture beauty and tell the story of women through the portrait.
Portraiture. For me, it is a window into ones soul and a means in which we can express who we are. The portrait has the power tell a story, to inspire, to document a life. The portrait allows us to proclaim, “I was here and this is who I was.” When this life is over, I feel deeply that the portrait is the most powerful artifact we will have of our lives and the person we were and wanted to be.
I was always drawn to beauty and to the portrait. I remember as a young child being mesmerized by portraits in magazines of women. I remember often wondering who these women were. I wondered how they lived their lives. I ripped endless photos out of magazines and covered the walls of my bedroom with them. I loved photography. I loved pictures… I loved beauty. I remember throughout my adolescents devouring Vogue, and not really reading the articles just studying the pictures. Pictures have moved me deeply for as long as I can remember. Pictures have inspired me to dream. I think the portrait was the extension of this dream of self and the ability through a portrait to tell a story of a life.
I always felt great nostalgia for the portrait from the paintings of Singer Sargent to the black and white portraits of Avedon. I grew up very much aware of the portrait through my twenties and was very intrigued by its power. As I began to seek out portraits to inspire me I seemed to always reach back to those of a time long ago. To the Slim Arron’s portraits of Babe Paley to David Bailey’s jean Shrimpton, Avedon’s Katherine Hepburn… I couldn’t find these iconic portraits of women today- portraits that stayed with me and moved me the way those images do and did. I found that I too longed to have an iconic image of my self that captures my spirit.
I begin to ask friends. They too felt this way… I didn’t have a friend that felt that she had a portrait that captured her truest being and beauty. I felt this great desire to create iconic portraits of women today that represent the same spirit and beauty as these women that inspired me did from long ago.
I was drawn back to the history of portraiture and how it, at one time, was women’s rights of passage- her moment of youth documented… The traditional portrait had been forgotten in modern times. The gift and power of its message had been lost. I wanted to bring the spirit of traditional portraiture back, while exploring it through a modern lens. I realized there was a new story to be told and that new pictures were needed to tell the story of the women in my world and of my generation. That was the beginning of American Beauty.
I think my greatest strength, as a photographer, is my eye. I think that any great gift comes through you and isn’t truly your own– you become a channel so to speak. I don’t really intellectualize this process: it isn’t a thinking exercise for me. I see portraits through a frame in my mind. I shoot for beauty; I shoot for soul. I find beauty, depth, strength and hope in each of the women I shoot. I create a safe environment for these women to own their beauty and share a very personal piece of themselves with me.
I think creating an intimate and safe environment is the most important thing. I am always seeking to shoot these women with a loving eye, a kind eye, to capture them in their very best selves.
Wardrobe, location and, of course, the woman. I really seek out the complete marriage and harmony of these three parts. I work with each woman and collaborate with them on locations that resonate with them and I style them in their own clothes. I have a very clear formula and a very clear process. For me, the power is in the process and in these elements. I also only shoot with natural light and I prefer to be in nature.
My vision of American Beauty was to tell a story of my vision of modern American women, beauty and style through iconic portraits. I set out to celebrate the spirit and soul of American women while paying tribute to our country and its beautiful landscapes.
Women are, of course, my inspiration. Strong women: my mother, my sisters, and my grandmothers; the women in my book and the women of long ago. My great inspiration was always and will always be women and the portraits that tell their stories.
Beauty comes from the inside and the outside. It is unique and never comes the same way in two women. Beauty is a way of being – a freedom of self. It can also be found in the line of a lip, the blue of an eye, or the length of a leg. Beauty comes in the light; beauty comes in nature. For me it is all about seeking out the beauty in each woman. I zero in on the part of her that makes her beautiful and capture it.
Choosing women for the book was at the end of the day a matter of intuition. I had to be inspired by each of the women I photographed for American Beauty. I felt that it was extremely important that each woman was professionally contributing something interesting in the American culture and society in some way.
I then sought out individuality/ uniqueness: a certain depth and a beauty in the way she expressed her self in the world. My dear friend Genevieve Bahrenberg wrote the text for America Beauty and co-produced it with me she was amazing sounding board. We spent many nights and days in deep discussions pouring over lists of women that we felt were interesting and creating in America. My gut and the desire to capture each of them and my hope that I could create something beautiful made the final edits.
Each woman underwent a “process” starting with wardrobe/ location meeting. My goal was to collaborate with each woman on her portrait to translate with her who she was and how she saw her self. I felt it essential that each portrait was a collaboration in order for it to be an authentic portrait. I ask them to bring their favorite article of clothes to the wardrobe meetings or send me images. I discussed with them their personal style. I then made edits and styled them from their clothes…
We often went on location scouting trips to areas/ locations/ environs they feel resonated with who they were and gave them a peace of sorts. This would differ for each woman. Some women felt themselves at peace in an open field, or sitting in the back of an old car, or on a porch. I thought very carefully and wanted each women to have a unique portrait, very much her own.
From there, I steered away from all trends, any shoes that could be identified to a certain moment in time. Many of the girls were bare foot. Jewelry was always of a personal nature. My take was anything in the frame of this portrait was important and told the story of each woman. Every detail + nuance was important. Everything mattered. In the end, the whole process was a true exercise in ones ability to understand ones self. ‘
I took between 200-500 photos per woman. In the end there was always the ONE. It was always about the ONE and the ONE was all I was looking for…
The greatest gift I learned from each of these women was to follow your heart, to listen to the soft whisper of your dreams. I have never met two women who shared the same dream. Dreams are our visions of our greatest selves. I believe that deeply… Each of these women followed this voice and that is why they are making indelible marks across America. The secret is in the courage to dream BIG, to work hard and never give up.
I believe we were all put here for a purpose and the great purpose of our lives is at the heart of our dreams. Finding ones purpose sets us free and empowers us to be the unique being we were meant to be.