Carlos René Perez says it’s up to the viewer to judge whether he has a style or not, but there is certainly something intensely personal about the vibrant images he has created over a career spanning more than 40 years. He earns his living as René Perez, a successful freelance commercial photographer who has honed his craft by meeting deadlines and serving the needs of his clients. But he has a parallel identity as Carlos René Perez, the impassioned photographic artist impelled to create art as the expression of his individual being and very much for its own sake.
Perez was born in San Antonio, Texas and after leaving University of Texas at Austin he worked for a brief time with the Galveston Daily News before moving to New York City in 1974. His clients have included the Associated Press, Bloomberg News, US News & World Report and USA Today. In more recent years he’s maintained relationships working with NYU Medical Center, Columbia University, Continuum Health Partners and Leica Camera USA.
Here, in his own sometimes ironic and frequently assertive words is Part 1 of his remarkable story.
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: This exhibit, “An Artist’s Life,” varies in its style depending on when the photos were taken. Earlier B&W images were more reportage in style. Recent work is more color oriented and has a more formal perspective. There was also a period of hand-color work in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
I always find it difficult to describe my work, not that I think it’s necessarily self-evident in terms of style, but because I feel my strength is in the multiplicity of styles I work in. I’m not so sure words like styles or genres are applicable as they’re all part of the same point of view to me.
Q: Do you see photography as a means for personal expression? If so, when did you first become interested in photography?
A: Yes. Pretty much from the beginning I was interested in photography as a means of personal expression. The first books I remember being seriously influenced by were the catalog for the Museum Of Modern Art Exhibit, “The Family of Man,” and Gordon Parks’ book, “A Poet and His Camera.” The two books combined gave me the view that I could document on the one hand like the reportage photos of “The Family of Man” or express one’s innermost thoughts and emotions like Gordon Parks. Of course, cinema has always been a strong influence as well.
I have been fortunate that I have always been able to earn a living from being a commercial photographer. Although I started as a newspaper photographer and journalist, by the mid 1980s I chose to concentrate on more commercial photography like annual reports and brochures.
Q: Did you have any formal education in photography or were you self-taught? Who are some of the photographers that have inspired or influenced you?
A: It was a combination of both, some formal courses, but primarily just working as a photographer. As I said, I was lucky that from the very beginning I was able to earn a living from photography and I pretty much learned by doing. I only took two classes in photography. The first was in Junior College in 1967, which was mainly a class on basic photographic techniques. The other was a History of Photography class at the University of Texas at Austin in 1970. My major was in Radio-Television-Film.
I’ve had many influences. Probably one of earliest was Edward Weston’s work in Mexico. He wrote about his time in Mexico in his “Day Books.” The “Day Books” exposed me to a variety of artists and writers that he described but in particular I was fascinated by the Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez-Bravo. Bravo’s work has always been a strong influence. A short list of other influences: Edward Steichen, George Brassaï, Jacques Henri Lartigue, Henri Cartier-Bresson and the painter Edward Hopper.
Q: You mentioned that the painter Edward Hopper was one of your major influences and the image entitled “Cozy Nails” is certainly Hopper-esque in concept, but presented in black-and-white. Do you agree, and why did you decide to present it in black-and-white rather than in color?
A: Yes. I was conscious of the Hopper influence when I took the photo but that day I was working with the B&W transparency film Scala, which is now out of production. I’ve never felt it would have been better in color.
Q: When did you first discover Leica?
A: The first time I saw a Leica I was probably about 18 years old. It was in a Fox Photo store in San Antonio, Texas. As I was fumbling with this oddly eccentric and exotic device, I released the shutter. I thought the camera was broken because I did not hear the shutter over the din of store activity. When I advanced it and released the shutter again I was hooked. I couldn’t afford the extravagant price of probably $150 for an M3 and a 50 mm lens, but it wasn’t long afterward that I did buy an M2. That was in 1971. Since then I’ve owned any number of bodies and lenses in both M and R systems. From my early days, I still have my first M2, M5, and a Leicaflex SL. All three are now retired. These days I work with an M7 with 21 mm, 35 mm and 50 mm lenses.
Q: Can you describe for us your photographic approach?
A: I have always separated my personal work from my commercial work. I’ve made the separation to the point that I use different names for each side of my career. As René Perez, I am a serious professional trying to please my clients. As Carlos René Perez, I am the serious artist trying only to please myself and attempting to grow my vision. It’s pretty all encompassing in that way. I wouldn’t say I eat, sleep and breathe photography but it is my economic and creative survival.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your current combined exhibit “Presence and Absence” with Maggie Steber at the Leica Gallery in New York? How did you two decide to present your works together in this manner?
A: This show, which runs through June 1, 2013, is the first time in the 40 years we’ve known each other that Maggie and I have done a project of this kind together. I think, and I certainly know from the feedback we’ve received, that it’s been a very successful collaboration.
Maggie and I have a long history. We met in that History of Photography class I took at the University of Texas in 1970. We have always been a strong influence on each other’s personal and creative lives. Maggie’s passion for her subjects has always been one of her greatest strengths and it’s been an important lesson for me learning to use passion as a creative tool. Passion is a strong motivator and allows for unending focus on your subjects or themes. It’s the most important lesson I’ve learned from Maggie about photography.
Q: Where does the title “Presence and Absence” come from?
A: Without really being aware of it I’ve always been strongly influenced by Edward Hopper’s paintings in which he depicts scenes of solitary individuals caught in introspective moments. Beginning with one of my earliest photographs, “Hamburgers”, 1967, I was fascinated by that sense of existential isolation or, I guess one might call it, alienation.
It’s a theme that runs through much of my work. In some art circles the representation of a person alone, seemingly lost in thought, is referred to as a person absent from the scene. I try to photograph my subjects lost in their world, hopefully not aware of my presence. That act of documenting someone or something present but also absent became the title of the show, “Presence and Absence.”
For Maggie, the title is particularly appropriate in that it’s a true description of her mother’s descent into dementia. I was very pleased and profoundly touched that this otherwise mechanical description of my work, and what I was trying to achieve with it, could also be related to a very real and emotionally powerful statement.
Q: Can you briefly explain what your part of the exhibition “An Artist’s Life” represents?
A: “An Artist’s Life” was originally just a working title for this show. I really didn’t know exactly where I was going with it. At first thought I would do a ‘70s exhibit. As I proceeded to organize and scan work for the catalog I realized that what I was trying to do, indeed what I needed to do, was to catalog my entire creative life. I quickly became aware that I was documenting my life as an artist, hence “An Artist’s Life.”
Following this theme, I break up each section of the catalog with either a self-portrait or a portrait of me taken by a close friend from the period I’m depicting. These portraits help to define a sense of following a chronological theme and the various periods of my creative life.
Q: I read on your website a bit about the circular nature and cyclical undertaking of the creative journey and process. What do you mean by that?
A: Well maybe that’s a rather feeble way of describing the fact that, in spite of everything I’ve done, I am still doing the same work I started doing in the early 1970s. Hopefully of course I do it with greater style, depth and maturity. I’ve always been conscious of looking back at my early interests and work and bringing them to the present time, integrating them into what I’m doing today. That’s why the cover of the catalog for this show is my 1967 photograph “Hamburgers.” I’m trying to present a reference to the very beginning of my artistic life. I’m always cycling the old to the new and reconnecting it all.
Q: Is there anything specific you hope this exhibition achieves or showcases?
A: Well, I love the idea that Maggie and I have done this project together. Given our background it just made total sense. That has been a very satisfying part of this show. Of course, one also hopes that a retrospective exhibit will open doors for recognition as an artist and to promote one’s career into the infinite future. Maybe that’s looking out too far and too fancifully.
Really for me the main goal was to document and catalog a representative body of work. In recent years I’ve been recovering from a couple of illnesses and had been somewhat uncertain about what my creative future might hold. I felt I had left so many unfinished projects and unfulfilled goals. The completion of “An Artist’s Life” is a clear presentation of what I’ve managed to accomplish.
It was also my hope that by doing this exhibit and catalog I could see what I wanted to do next in my creative life. I was hoping there would be a grand revelation and it would be easy to see what to do next. In the end, I see that I need to continue to work as I always have. I guess that’s why I view it as a creative circle.
Thank you for your time, René!
– Leica Internet Team