“An Artist’s Life,” on view at the Leica Gallery in New York until June 1, 2013, offers a look at the career of Carlos René Perez which has spanned 45 years and counting. It is part of a combined exhibit entitled “Presence and Absence” with the photographer Maggie Steber. Perez, who was born in San Antonio, Texas, got his start at the Galveston Daily News before moving to New York in 1974. His client list has grown to include media outlets such as the Associated Press (AP), Bloomberg News, US News & World Report and USA Today, as well as companies like NYU Medical Center, Columbia University, Continuum Health Partners and Leica Camera USA.
René Perez earns his living as a freelance commercial photographer and has an alter ego, Carlos René Perez, through which he expresses his own passions and explores a wide-variety of styles. You can read Part 1 of our interview with him here and now we delve deeper into his thoughts and feelings about his work and the influences and context behind some of his most outstanding images.
Q: Your “An Artist’s Life” exhibition is a kind of retrospective, and you assert that your work transcends genres and encompasses “a multiplicity of styles.” However, there seems to be an underlying unity to these images that, as you say, are “all part of the same point of view to me.” Can you elaborate on this conceptual dichotomy and do you think you have anything like an identifiable style?
A: I hope I never said or gave the impression that I thought that my work transcended anything. I don’t view it that way. I only mean that I have never tried to stay within one specific genre. I was told early on that I tried too many different things in my work and I needed to do one thing well to be taken seriously in the art world. That confused me because I was just doing what I wanted to do. Maybe you would be able to tell me if I have one identifiable style. I’m too much in the middle of it.
Q: How do you think your stint as a newspaper photographer and your other identity as a commercial photographer have influenced your evolution as an art photographer? And how do you manage to keep these two identities separate, aside, of course from adding the first name Carlos to your name when working in the art realm?
A: Deadlines! Having to deliver a usable product on time. Never allowing oneself the luxury of failure. You can’t earn a living if the client isn’t happy with your work. It’s a discipline that can be applied to everything. Also, the technical discipline that’s required to pull off so many different jobs I do whether it’s a portrait, a still life, a surgery, an event or an architectural interior is very beneficial. Everything contributes to my personal work and vice-versa. On the other hand, not having to satisfy my artistic needs through commercial work is important to me. I’m free to do what I want when I’m working for myself without needing to please a commercial market.
Q: You state quite clearly that, as an artist, the subjects you choose to shoot are determined solely by your passion and fascination for them rather than a desire to document them or to reveal social ills. Is this a conscious decision, and how do you think it shapes the character of your work? Do you think that being a pure artist motivated strictly by personal desires is liberating? And is having a specific goal, such as Maggie Steber had in documenting her mother’s descent into dementia, too restrictive for your free spirit?
A: EEEEEK!!! I would never hazard to use the concept of free spirit in reference to myself nor would I view myself as pure in any way, but yes I do think it’s liberated me not to corral my ideas into a conventional genre. It was a conscious decision not to pursue any journalistic goals in my work. I’ve said many times that I was determined never to make art that has any socially redeeming value. I say that largely out of my rebellious nature. In the ‘80s I was often told that I should put my creative skills to good use by applying them to social themes. The concept of the concerned photographer was appealing but just never worked for me. Of course in the end this is all BS. As we all know, art is always reflective of the world around us. It’s not a matter of documentary photography being restrictive — it just isn’t my goal.
Q: You mention that one of the most important lessons you’ve learned from your long artistic and personal relationship with Maggie Steber is using your passion as a creative tool. Can you say something more about how this has influenced your work, and transformed or deepened the existential isolation and alienation that characterized your early work?
A: Joseph Campbell called it following your bliss. For myself it’s about following one’s passion without concern for its place in convention or practicality. I don’t see it as influencing content as much as it allows for not limiting oneself and providing the luxury to, so to speak, fulfill one’s dreams or passions or ambitions — whatever you want to call it. But this is all too lofty and analytical. I really don’t like getting into metaphysical or abstract concepts. I really don’t think that much about it. Suffice it to say that if one can find a way to pursue goals or ideas that you find fascinating you will ultimately accomplish more.
Q: City The Cat is exquisitely realistic and denotative on the one hand yet wildly surrealistic like a Bosch painting. Can you tell us something about where and when you shot it and what it means to you?
A: Well that’s quite a compliment and you pretty much understand what I was trying to accomplish. The photo was part of a long-term project, from my book “Dutch.” In the narrative of “Dutch,” City the Cat is caught destroying an artist’s creation. This photo represents the moment he was caught in the act. In the story the cat was banished from the studio to the street where he has to fend for himself. I suppose its symbolic meaning would be that our unbridled obsessions often interfere with our best self-interests. A cautionary tale I suppose.
Q: This charming and comical picture of the George Washington Bridge includes a guy on an observation platform in the foreground looking straight at the camera through one of those tourist binoculars that resembles a surreal cartoon version of his face. That certainly takes the image to another level that says something about the absurdity of everyday life. Do you agree, and did you have anything else in mind when you took this shot?
A: You are absolutely correct about the absurdity of the image, but to say I had any preconceived thoughts when I aimed the camera in the direction of the bridge would be giving me far too much credit. I had been watching the light change and this boy, probably around 12 years old, appeared and started playing with the binoculars. Suddenly he turned to look at me when he realized I had my camera fixed on him. In a way it was a challenge to my observing him. The ironic moment was all I saw and I was just trying to release the shutter in time not to miss it.
A: Yes you are right. Hopper always tried to simplify by eliminating details in buildings or the surrounding scene. He had that luxury. In a photograph it’s much harder to eliminate all that detail but then that’s the way I see the world. In both these images I did choose a frame that had the least number of people in order to keep the scene as simple as possible. On the other hand, I do see hyper-detail all the time in my personal life. It’s the way my eyes work and I love the surreal quality it brings to photographs. It’s one of the reasons I love Leica lenses because they help to enhance that hyper-realism.
Q: Your Spanish Harlem image is a classic double portrait that reveals the character of two guys who obviously want to project the image of being cool and looking tough. However, this image also has a vintage quality and seems to express a different time and consciousness than the present. Can you tell us something about it and why you included it in this portfolio?
A: In the late ‘70s I was working on a series about a street gang in Spanish Harlem. They usually met on a corner around a fire in an oil barrel. Their clothes and personal style were totally ‘70s. Here they were posing as gangsters, which is what they were playing at most of the time when I was photographing them. There was a sense that they were pretending to be tough before they really understood what that might mean in the future. For personal reasons I abandoned the project before I got very far with it so I don’t know what became of these individuals. This is an example of a situation where I was uncomfortable blending art and documentary, as I mentioned before.
A: There, you’ve identified another tool in my photo tool kit. Juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated subjects creates a stronger image. This is something I’ve always worked toward. Sometimes I forget its potential. Thanks for reminding me. Banker’s Trust is a southerly view from a building I’ve forgotten the name of. I was sent by the AP to photograph some event and this was the view from the meeting room. Glad I had the presence of mind to snap it.
Q: This picture entitled, Cilla & Maggie, appears to be posed. Was it in fact and what’s going on here?
A: Maggie and I were visiting a mutual friend in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico in 1992. I’ve been friendly with Cilla since high school. Honestly, I don’t really remember the exact details, but I know I tried to sneak up on them to get a candid shot of them waiting for me on that corner. That was about 20 years ago and I’m not sure of the details. I don’t remember them posing but then again they are both, by nature, excellent models.
Q: Have you considered publishing a book based on this exhibit, perhaps enhancing it with other images shot over your long career, including portraits and commercial work? In any case what are some of your ideas about showing or publishing your images, and sharing them with the public?
A. The catalog for this show is available at the Leica Gallery in New York or from Blurb Books. I designed it to be the outline for a more extensive book covering all the periods of my work, but that’s for the future.
For the time being I’m only concentrating on my personal work. Maybe down the road I’ll find the energy to compile everything else. It’s one step at a time. However, I do want to try to find some outlets for my work. That’s definitely the next step.
Thank you for your time, René!
– Leica Internet Team